Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) would like a word with the corporate media.
Members of United Auto Workers (UAW) union launched a strike on Friday with walkouts at a select factories run by the “Big 3” automakers after a deadline for contract negotiations came and went on Thursday night. But Sanders says the reasons why workers are taking to the picket lines are “rarely, if ever” discussed on news channels controlled by dominant media conglomerates.
“In the first half of 2023, the Big 3 automakers made a combined $23 billion in profits – up 80 percent from the same time period last year,” Sanders said in a scathing statement to reporters this week. “But if you’ve watched any corporate news coverage of the pending strike by 150,000 autoworkers, you’ve heard more about the strikes’ potential negative effects on the economy and a litany of excuses why very well-compensated CEOs just can’t make a fair deal.
The UAW launched targeted strikes at a limited number of factories after negotiations on a new labor contract with the Big 3 Detroit automakers — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis — failed to reach a deal on Thursday. A strike at all auto facilities would be expensive for both the companies and the union, which would need to pay $500 per week out its strike fund to all 146,000 UAW members, according to the Associated Press. A full strike would empty the union’s $825 million fund in roughly three months.
Still, the targeted strike is the latest historic display of worker power after decades of wage stagnation despite booming profits across the auto industry and many others. Buoyed by pro-worker rulings at the National Labor Relations Board and a surge in support for organized labor among young people, unions representing Starbucks employees, university workers, television writers, and more are making headlines around the country. At least 200 strikes have been called across the country so far this year.
Mainstream news outlets often publish stories focused squarely on the potential economic impacts or “costs” of a strike, including potential increases in consumer prices. However, little is said about the social costs of underpaid labor and the runaway corporate greed that caused income inequality to explode since the 1970s, when unions were larger and much more powerful. Despite pearl-clutching in the corporate media over the potential costs of a work stoppage at a large shipping company, Teamsters working for UPS recently won considerable gains in wages and safety under the threat of a strike that was finally averted last month.
Wages are a major factor in the UAW negotiations, with autoworkers demanding significant increases in pay after years of sluggish wage growth and outsourcing in the auto sector. Sanders said autoworker wages start at just $17 an hour and top out at $32, less than they earned 15 years ago when adjusted for inflation. However, the corporate media seem to ignore such crucial context, Sanders said.
“You won’t hear that last year the CEO of General Motors raked in about $29 million in total compensation, the CEO of Ford made approximately $21 million, and the CEO of Stellantis pocketed over $25 million,” Sanders said. “In fact, over the last four years pay for those CEOs has increased by more than 40 percent.”
“You won’t hear that, unbelievably, over the last 20 years, the average wage for American autoworkers has decreased by 30 percent after adjusting for inflation,” he added.
From 2013 to 2022, profits for Big 3 automakers skyrocketed by 92 percent to the tune of $250 billion, according to number crunchers at the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Another $32 billion in profits across the three companies is forecast for 2023. CEO pay increased by 40 percent over the last decade, and the three companies paid out nearly $66 billion in shareholder dividend payments and stock buybacks to investors.
EPI reports that concessions made by workers during the 2008 auto industry crisis and government bailout were never reinstated after companies such as General Motors and Chrysler (now Stellantis) got back on their feet. Wages at both union and nonunion automakers have fallen behind inflation as a result, with average real hourly earnings dropping 19 percent since 2008.
General Motors and Chrysler agreed to bankruptcy and government restructuring, which saved the industry but took a big toll on workers who agreed to a wage freeze and other concessions. In 2009, the companies suspended cost-of-living adjustments. Since that time, the average price of vehicles for consumers jumped by 40 percent, but wages for workers have not kept up. According to EPI researcher Adam Hersh, the union’s demand for better pay makes economic sense:
The deep roots of the UAW’s current dissatisfaction share much with those taking labor actions to fight back after decades of rising inequality: The pay of typical workers has lagged far behind more-privileged actors in our economy, and the reason for this growing inequality is an erosion of workers’ leverage and bargaining power in labor markets. After surveying here the recent trends in auto industry wages, corporate profits, and executive compensation, it’s hard to blame workers for standing up now. It’s also clear that the companies have more than enough means to meet worker demands, remain profitable, and make the necessary investments to grow into electric vehicles.
Hersh argues the auto manufactures cannot afford to lose skilled workers as the industry shifts toward electric vehicles and cleaner energy. Even as they complain that paying higher wages would put them at a competitive disadvantage, the Big 3 and other automakers are expected to benefit from taxpayer-funded incentives in the name of fighting climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act championed by President Joe Biden includes a $7,500 consumer tax credit for electric vehicles designed to boost the already growing demand and encourage automakers to expand production in the United States. If the benefits of this program are shared with workers and the communities they live in, it could be an important model for a “just transition” to cleaner energy in other sectors of the economy.
“Despite what you might hear in the corporate media in the coming days, what the UAW is fighting for is not radical,” Sanders said. “It is the totally reasonable demand that autoworkers, who have made enormous financial sacrifices over the past 40 years, finally receive a fair share of the record-breaking profits their labor has generated.”
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