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Unionized Autoworkers Are Taking on a Three-Headed Behemoth of Big Capital

The bosses who are blocking the auto workers’ demands are also architects of war and oil-driven planetary destruction.

United Auto Workers members march in the Detroit Labor Day Parade on September 4, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan.

We may be days away from the biggest U.S. auto worker strike in years. The contracts between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the “Big Three” automakers (Ford, General Motors (GM) and Stellantis) expire on September 14. The agreements cover nearly 150,000 workers at the three corporations. So far, news reports indicate that the union and the auto giants remain far apart in negotiations. A whopping 97 percent of UAW members have authorized a strike.

The demands of autoworkers are clear. They include eliminating wage and benefit tiers, obtaining double-digit wage increases, the restoration of cost of living adjustments, defined benefit pensions for all workers, reestablishing retiree medical benefits, the right to strike over plant closures, new protections for workers if a plant shuts down, and more. Looming over the negotiations is the accelerating transition to electric vehicles (EVs). Auto workers are in a historic fight to ensure that EV production comes with high-quality union jobs.

The auto companies are not hurting financially. UAW President Shawn Fain has stressed the “record profits” of the Big Three, claiming the companies took in $21 billion in profits during the first half of 2023 alone and an astounding $250 billion over the past decade. Their CEOs have seen their “pay spike 40% on average over the last four years,” says Fain.

The auto workers’ fight is not theirs alone. In organizing to win substantial gains for their members against companies that are awash in billions in profit, victory for the UAW can help raise the wage floor for other workers and set an inspiring example of what militant trade unionism can achieve. It can help turn the tide on the trend where workers create ever-rising profits for corporations, but never seem to receive their just share.

But there’s another sense in which the UAW’s fight is everyone else’s fight. In taking on the Big Three automakers, auto workers are quite literally confronting a three-headed behemoth whose leadership and governance are closely embedded and directly interlocked within a wider corporate power network that stretches well beyond the auto industry.

A Truthout analysis of top executives and board directors — in other words, an analysis of the few dozen people who sit at the heights of power within the Big Three — reveals a web of representatives from powerful corporations and industry associations who for decades have been at the forefront of fighting unions, lowering workers’ living standards and awarding huge executive pay.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Big Three executives and directors are playing hardball with autoworkers. Many of the people who run the show at GM, Ford and Stellantis are the same people who have overseen private equity firms like KKR as they profit from slashing jobs. They are the same people who help run ruthlessly anti-union empires like Amazon and Walmart. Their ranks include leaders of industry groups like the Business Roundtable, which lobbies tooth-and-nail to defend corporate interests and entertainment giants like Disney who are pitted against striking actors and writers. They are acculturated to, and products of, a regime of business rule that lavishes CEOs with huge pay and uses billions in profits for dividend payouts and stock buybacks rather than higher wages and more benefits for workers.

“We’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our one and only true enemy: multibillion dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share,” UAW President Fain said in a March speech. While Fain was speaking of the auto giants, his description of the “enemy” also applies to the many “multibillion dollar corporations” outside the auto industry over which executives and directors from the Big Three also preside.

General Motors CEO Is Key Ally of Disney Boss

Take Mary Barra, for instance, the chair and CEO of General Motors. She’s been the top executive at helm of the auto giant for nearly a decade now. In 2022, she raked in nearly $29 million in total compensation in 2022 and over $81 million from 2020 to 2022. According to company filings, the CEO to median worker pay ratio at GM is an astounding 362 to 1.

But Barra also holds another powerful role: She’s been a board director of the Walt Disney Company since 2017.

Disney, of course, is the entertainment mega-corporation that oversees a film, television and streaming empire, as well as a chain of famed resorts and amusement parks across the globe. Its flagship park, Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is the largest single-site employer in the entire U.S.

Disney’s recent record on labor and inequality is checkered. Amid inflation and skyrocketing housing costs in Orlando and Anaheim, some Disney workers have had to sleep in their cars. Earlier this year, the company opposed union demands for substantially higher wages at Disney World, with a whopping 96 percent of workers rejecting an initial offer. (The two sides reached an agreement as pressure ramped on the company). Around that same time, Disney’s returning CEO, Bob Iger, announced that Disney was slashing 7,000 jobs, or 3 percent of its global workforce. This was to the delight of Wall Street investors.

Months later, Iger emerged as an industry villain, emblematic of Hollywood’s corporate greed, for thousands of striking writers and actors. The Disney boss called the strikers “disruptive,” saying of their demands: “There’s a level of expectation that they have that is just not realistic.”

Meanwhile, Iger vacuumed in around $130 million from Disney between 2019 and 2022, according to company filings.

As a Disney director, GM’s Mary Barra is instrumental in the corporation’s governance, including with decisions like bringing back Iger. She sits on the board’s compensation committee, which oversees Iger’s bloated pay.

With Barra’s governing role at Disney and her close relationship with Iger, striking actors and writers, and auto workers who may strike, are up against similar opponents who are allied in overseeing key nodes of corporate rule.

Indeed, CNBC reports that Iger and Barra are “particularly close.” Just weeks after Disney’s mass firing of thousands of workers, Barra wrote a fawning tribute to Iger when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s special issue on the world’s most influential people.

And while it’s nothing compared to the tens of millions she rakes in at GM, Barra also profits handsomely from her director role at Disney, where she rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. According to Barra’s most recent disclosure, she currently owns nearly $1.4 million in Disney stock.

To top it off, Barra also chairs the Business Roundtable, a powerful CEO lobbying group with a long time hostility to unions and a dedication to weakening labor laws.

Big Three Executives and Directors at Anti-Union Companies

If Barra represents the wider corporate culture of huge CEO compensation and antagonism with labor, so do a slew of other Big Three executives and directors who have helped oversee company operations that are synonymous with union busting and mistreating workers.

For example, Mark Stewart, who is Stellantis’s chief operating officer in North America with a central role in company negotiations with the UAW, previously was the vice president of operations at Amazon in 2017 and 2018.

Stewart’s role at Amazon was significant, and his managerial prerogatives were pitted against workers’ interests. According to his Stellantis biography, Stewart was Amazon’s “lead executive for customer fulfillment across 200 operations facilities in North America,” and responsible for “overseeing operations, procurement, construction and engineering with teams dedicated to pursuing automation, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics and conveyance.”

Worker stories of hyper monitoring, workplace accidents and mistreatment were reported during Stewart’s tenure. Amazon is a notoriously anti-union corporation with a reputation for union busting.

Stewart, who has had harsh words for union auto workers, recently purchased one of Detroit’s biggest mansions for nearly $5 million, and he’s faced scrutiny over partying in Mexico, where he has a second house, during contract negotiations.

Three directors of Big Three auto companies have backgrounds with another poster child for union busting and for holding down the wage floor: Walmart. GM Director Joanne Crevoiserat held a senior role at Walmart from 2005 to 2007, while Stellantis Director Wan Ling Martello was a senior executive at Walmart from 2005 to 2011, including executive vice president of global ecommerce. GM Director Thomas Schoewe served as executive vice president and chief financial officer of Walmart from 2000 to 2011.

Schoewe has a history with another company with a poor record on workers’ rights: The private equity behemoth KKR, where he previously served as a director. GM’s Lead Independent Director Patricia Russo also currently serves on the KKR board. Among other things, KKR was one of the firms that drove Toys “R” Us into bankruptcy and left tens of thousands of workers unemployed. It also owns Refresco, the world’s largest independent bottling company, which until recently had long stalled on a contract for unionized workers in its New Jersey plant.

There’s more. GM Director Linda R. Gooden governs Home Depot as it fights unionization. Stellantis’s Wan Ling Martello directs Uber as it resists workers’ rights. Ford’s John C. May is the chairman and CEO of Deere & Company, which faced a huge strike in 2021 over wages and other issues. GM Director Jonathan McNeill is a former executive at the fiercely anti-union companies Lyft and Tesla.

Huge Auto Company CEO Pay Shouldn’t Be a Surprise

Overseeing the huge CEO pay for the Big Three auto giants are their boards of directors. In addition to Barra’s $81 million from 2020 to 2022 (and more than $200 million since 2014), Ford CEO Jim Farley was given over $55 million from 2020 to 2022 (part of that time which he wasn’t yet CEO and was thus paid less). Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares was compensated nearly €23.5 million in 2022 alone, which might have helped him pay for his classic car collection.

While obscene to many, these enormous payouts to auto bosses are less surprising when we look at how Big Three directors shower exorbitant CEO pay within other companies they direct. For example:

  • GM Director Judith Miscik has also been a board director of Morgan Stanley since 2014. Morgan Stanley’s board has compensated CEO James Gorman with over $103 million from 2020 to 2022.
  • GM Director Wesley G. Bush has been a board director of tech giant Cisco since 2019. Cisco’s board has given CEO Charles H. Robbins around $77 million from 2020 to 2022. Bush sits on Cisco’s compensation committee, which oversees executive pay.
  • GM Director Joseph Jimenez is also the lead director of Procter and Gamble, which has paid CEO Jon Moeller nearly $40 million since 2021, when he became CEO.
  • Ford Director Jon M. Huntsman Jr. also sits on the board of Chevron, which paid CEO Mike Wirth over $75 million from 2020 to 2022. Huntsman sits on the board’s “Management Compensation” committee.

The list could go on, but it all suggests a larger truth: The people upholding huge CEO pay at the Big Three are the same people doing it at other corporations, and the fight against CEO pay in the auto industry at the expense of workers is interwoven with the same fight elsewhere.

Interlocks With Militarism and Fossil Fuels

The heights of power among the corporate auto giants are also closely interlocked with the military-industrial complex and top weapons producers who depend on astronomical U.S. military budgets that swallow up funding that might otherwise go toward addressing hardships of unemployed and low-wage working people.

GM CEO Mary Barra herself served on the board of General Dynamics, the fifth-biggest U.S. defense company, from 2011 to 2017, during which she was compensated in the millions. GM Director Thomas Schoewe currently serves as a director of Northrop Grumman, the third-biggest U.S. defense company. GM Director Wesley G. Bush is the former head of Northrop Grumman, serving as CEO until 2018 and chairman until 2019. Another GM director, Linda R. Good, is the retired executive vice president of Information Systems and Global Solutions at Lockheed Martin, the top U.S. defense company.

GM’s closest interlock with the U.S. security state may be Judith “Jami” Miscik, who’s served on the GM board since 2011. From 2009 to 2022, she held leadership roles, including co-CEO and vice chairman with Kissinger Associates, the secretive consultancy firm started by former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who many believe to be guilty of war crimes. Moreover, Miscik served as deputy director for Intelligence at the CIA from 2002 to 2005, where, by some accounts, she helped provide phony intelligence that paved the way for the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Miscik also serves as vice chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, the influential foreign policy establishment think tank.

Alongside their ties to weapons companies, Big Three directors also have extensive ties to oil and gas companies, fossil fuel utilities and chemical companies, which they personally profit from even as auto companies move evermore toward EV production.

Ford Director and former Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. sits on the board of Big Oil giant Chevron, while Ford Director William E. Kennard until recently sat on the board of Duke Energy, one of the worst-polluting utilities. Stellantis Director Ann Godbehere sits on the board of another oil behemoth, Shell, and she also previously directed the scandal-ridden mining giant Rio Tinto. GM irector Linda Gooden has served as a director for the gas utility Washington Gas & Light for the past decade.

GM Director Wesley G. Bush sits on the board of chemicals giant Dow, which has paid out numerous settlements in recent years for its polluting activities, while Director Jan Tighe sits on the board of another massive chemical company, Huntsman Corporation, which has paid penalties and settlements around issues that include, recently, alleged violations of its Clean Water Act permit limits for pollutant discharges.

All this has just scratched the surface around the ways in which the powerful people behind the Big Three are embedded within wider networks of capital. They also oversee tech giants, real estate titans, pharmaceutical juggernauts, and more.

To be sure, it’s the norm for executives and directors at big corporations to have similar interlocks as those at the auto giants. At the same time, naming specific names, and making concrete connections, in the wider network of the powerful people who run the Big Three helps clarify what workers are up against and brings to light shared struggles.

Whether you’re an actor or writer on strike to save your profession, an Amazon or Home Depot worker dreaming of a union, a laid-off Toy “R” Us worker angry at how Wall Street gutted your job or you’re just enraged over skyrocketing CEO pay, you have common ground with auto workers and the forces they’re up against.

Note: A correction was made to correct a typo in Patricia Russo’s name.

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