Workers at the big three carmakers earn less now in real dollars than they did 15 years ago – as their CEOs make more and more. Their fight is everyone’s fight.
In the United States today, at a time of unprecedented income and wealth inequality, weekly wages for the average American worker are actually lower than they were 50 years ago after adjusting for inflation. In other words, despite a massive increase in worker productivity, despite CEOs now making nearly 400 times more than what their employees earn, despite record-breaking corporate profits, dividends and stock buybacks, average American workers are worse off than they were 50 years ago.
That morally grotesque and growing inequality is exactly what has been occurring in the automobile industry for decades. This time, however, under new union leadership, the members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) are fighting back. If the big three automakers (General Motors, Ford and Stellantis) do not provide reasonable contracts to address longstanding inequities in the industry, there will be a strike – and all of us should support the strikers.
What are some of the issues that are pushing UAW members to strike? At the top of the list is the extraordinary level of corporate greed shown by industry leaders.
In the first half of 2023 the big three automakers made a combined $21bn in profits – up 80% from the same time period last year. Over the past decade, these same companies made some $250bn in profits in North America alone.
Yet last year, the big three spent $9bn – not to improve the lives of their workers, not to make their factories safer, but on stock buybacks and dividends to make their wealthy executives and stockholders even richer.
Further, while many of their workers are struggling to survive financially, last year the CEO of General Motors raked in about $29m in total compensation, the CEO of Ford approximately $21m and the CEO of Stellantis over $25m.
Incredibly, over the last four years, CEO pay at the big three has increased by more than 40%.
While auto industry CEOs and stockholders make out like bandits, the workers who build the vehicles earn totally inadequate wages and, over the last several decades, have fallen further and further behind. There was once a time when a union job in the automobile industry was the gold standard for the working class of this country. Those days are long gone.
The average starting wage at the big three today is around $17 an hour – less than a number of non-union auto plants around the country. The top wage is $32.32 an hour. Unbelievably, over the last 20 years, the average wage for American autoworkers has decreased by 30% after adjusting for inflation. The reality is that autoworkers at the big three are earning less today than they did 15 years ago.
What the UAW is fighting for is not radical. 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.
What does that mean? It means that if the big three can afford to give a pay raise of more than 40% to their CEOs, they should be able to provide the same type of pay raise for the autoworkers who make their products.
And let’s be clear. While decent wages are a key demand for the UAW, there are other important contract changes that the union has proposed.
The union, quite appropriately, wants to get rid of the two-tier system under which newer workers earn lower wages and receive less generous benefits than others doing the same exact work. They want to end the use of “temporary workers” who are ruthlessly exploited and treated like second-class citizens.
They want to make sure that all autoworkers receive a decent pension plan and retiree health benefits so that they can retire with the respect and the dignity they deserve.
They want to make sure that autoworkers have the right to strike when the big three announce that they will be shutting down a plant. Over the past 20 years, the big three have shut down 65 factories and shipped tens of thousands of jobs overseas where they can pay workers starvation wages with no benefits.
The union also wants to make sure, as the industry proposes to build 10 new electric vehicle battery plants, that the workers in these plants become part of the UAW and receive the same wages and benefits as union members.
As we transition away from fossil fuels and move toward electric vehicles in the fight to combat the climate crisis, the UAW wants to make sure that the green jobs of the future are well-paying, union jobs.
The CEOs of the big three and their masters on Wall Street must understand they cannot have it all. Decade after decade their greed has decimated the middle class, hollowed out communities throughout our country and caused massive economic suffering for the working class of America. These CEOs have created a destructive race to the bottom in a global quest for cheap labor and lax environmental standards.
Enough is enough! Let us stand together to put an end to corporate greed and start rebuilding our struggling middle class. Let us stand in solidarity with the UAW and create an economy that works for all, not just the privileged few.