In this week’s Hack Watch, I took a look at what the media has been saying about the potential auto workers strike.
The “Summer of Strikes” (Or, as the New Yorker has called it, “Hot Labor Summer”) has garnered significant media attention and made workers rights a major topic of public discourse. Whether it’s discussing both the writer and/or actors’ strike(s) over wages and job security, the narrowly avoided UPS strike over pay and working conditions, or the looming United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against the “Big Three” Detroit automakers (General Motors (GM), Ford, and Stellantis) over their next contract, odds are you have subjected to the media discussion of the strikes (and much of it has not been great, to put it kindly). Let’s take a step back, look how we got here, examine some of the UAW’s demands, and then look at how the media has covered it all.
How Did We Get Here?
The contract between UAW and the Big Three is set to expire on September 14th. As part of the negotiation process, the union, and its president Shawn Fain, requested several reasonable asks that include; a four-day work week at full time pay, the elimination of the two-tiered employment system, a right to strike over plant closures, temporary worker protections, cost of living restoration (COLA), retire benefits, a 46 percent wage increase, and profit sharing of the company.
Ford offered a 9% increase over the term of the contract, while the other two companies have largely ignored the UAW’s requests. In a statement, Ford President Jim Farley said, “Overall, this offer is significantly better than what we estimate workers earn at Tesla and foreign automakers operating in the U.S. This would be an important deal for our workers, and it would allow for the continuation of Ford’s unique position as the most American automaker – and give us the flexibility we need within our manufacturing footprint to respond to customer demand as the industry transforms. This offer would also allow Ford to compete, invest in new products, grow and share that future success with our employees through profit sharing.”
Very recently,GM offered a 10 percent wage increase, while Stellantis reportedly intends to make an offer. For a littler over a month, both companies had made no counter-offers and had not responded to the union’s asks
Due to GM and Stellantis almost entirely ignoring the request of the union, UAW filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for not bargaining in good faith. Fain explained that “GM and Stellantis’ willful refusal to bargain in good faith is not only insulting and counterproductive, it’s also illegal.” Both GM and Stellantis intend to fight the charges made against them.
The union has stated that it will launch a strike on the 14th if no agreement has been reached.
Why did the union make these demands?
With the way that GM, Ford, and Stellantis are treating the union members, you would think the latter is trying to elevate members to the C-Suite or to the board of directors. However, when you actually look at UAW’s requests, they’re pretty tame.
UAW’s full list of demands include: eliminating tiers (so workers are not considered second class), higher wages (noting that Big Three CEOs saw a 40 percent pay spike over the last three years), restoring the cost of living adjustment for employment, guaranteed and defined pension plans, striking privileges over plant closures, protections for temporary workers, and more time off.
Each of these demands would create a more equitable work space. For example, eliminating the two-tier wage system, which was a point of contention during the UPS contract negotiations, allows for employees to make equal wages. Under a two-tier system, two people will have the same title, but one will make more because they are more senior. A two-tiered system can create disparities in the workplace when two people have the exact same job but one is paid more. It can hurt morale and often results in high turnover (and seeing how Ford has had historically high employee turnover , you would think the company would have a vested interest in finding ways to reduce that). This is harmful to newer employees who work hourly jobs, because while they may be doing the same work, under the same hours, they will make significantly less.
At first glance the 46 percent increase in wages may seem relatively steep, but the union and Fain rightly point out the cost of inflation is hurting the purchasing power of workers. There are a few things missing however. First and foremost the pay hike would exist over the next four years of the contract. Secondly, it would be broken up into a 20% increase upon ratification, then an additional 5% for every year after. A UAW spokesperson pointed out the average CEO of a Detroit area automotive company has seen a salary increase of 40% believing “UAW members deserve the same if not more.”
And The Media Focuses On The Wrong Things…Again
The coverage of the strikes, unfortunately, leans into the drama around the strike, rather than educating the public on what the strike is about.
Instead of trying to explain to the public why the workers are making these requests, the media covers the strikes very much in the same way as it covers a government shutdown: as a circus. With ominous headlines such as “Why a looming UAW strike is focused on temp workers, tiered employment” or “UAW’s clash with Big 3 automakers shows off a more confrontational union as strike deadline looms,” you only come away with a vague understanding of what exactly is going on and why he union wants what it wants.
Outlets like CNN, Bloomberg, The Associated Press, CNBC (who referred to the union’s president as a “bulldog”) paint the union as nothing more than greedy rabble rousers who are making impossible demands.
The media has also done the work of the Big Three by painting the strikers as odious, immovable, onerous thugs who are trying to steal from the companies that employ them. Take CNBC’s Michael Wayland who referred to Fain as a “union boss.” Earlier, this week I talked about how the term’s earliest known usage effectively likened union members to mobsters. How about Politico giving real estate to the New York bureau chief of a car enthusiast magazine to refer to the union members as “doing the industry’s dirty work?” In fact the Politico piece gets worse, claiming “the UAW has aligned itself closely with the executives it otherwise denounces: resistance to the crucially needed clean energy transition. It’s an embarrassing move that highlights the union’s short-term thinking, not just in light of the climate crisis, but because of the union’s own environmentalist roots and clear understanding that an electric future is coming.” I for one absolutely believe that wanting to end an unfair compensation package most definitely impacts the climate crisis.
Look, labor negotiations are not sexy. But they are important. It is hard to get people to care about something that is not so emotionally charged as labor in the same way as other social issues like abortion or marriage equality. Because of the media we have this image of a blue-collar worker entirely removed from our existence fighting for rights that don’t concern us. And you know someone like Fain, who the media has routinely bashed, could be the perfect patsy for that. After all he is a white electrician, with a bit of pugnacious attitude towards the wealthy. However, his fight is all of ours. The needs of the UAW, and frankly the needs of all of the strikers we have seen this summer, are all of our needs; fair wages, better benefits…things we all care about.
Once again, I am asking the media to please cover unions correctly. They are not greedy communists like Cramer would have you believe, they are everyday Americans who wish to enjoy the wealth they helped create. In other words, the media should just do their job and inform the public about key events that impact our lives, instead of devoting their time to running interference for the elites who siphon off the gains produced by American workers.