As Biden Scrambles to Save Suppliers, UAW Limits Strike’s Impact 

Under pressure from the Biden Administration, UAW President Shawn Fain punted and avoided striking at key auto suppliers (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Last night’s announcement by UAW President Shawn Fain that the union would initially only strike at three non-strategic plants has confused many in the labor movement. The announcement comes as the Biden Administration has stepped in to stop the strike from spread and protect its $15 billion investment in transitioning the auto parts industry to make electric vehicles. 

For months, UAW President Shawn Fain had threatened an unprecedented strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler). 

After defeating the previous presidential administration of the UAW by a narrow margin of only 483 votes, Fain attempted to build support within the union by promising to be more aggressive in countering the Big Three. He declared that the UAW would demand that the Big Three agree to a 32-hour work week, 40% raises, a return to defined benefit plans, the end of “two-tier” wage scales, and a “just transition” to electric vehicle production. 

In repeated public remarks, Fain pledged that the union would go on strike if an agreement wasn’t reached when their contract expired on September 14th.

“I’ve told them repeatedly, September 14th is a deadline, not a reference point.” Fain told UAW members in a Facebook live in early September. “I told them that if they expected to drag everything out until the final days of bargaining and then try to settle everything all at once, then they were setting themselves up for a strike.” 

However, under pressure from the Biden Administration, Fain punted and avoided an industry-wide strike. Instead, Fain chose a more symbolic approach, initially striking at only three non-strategic plants out of the 150 plants run by the Big Three. 

If the union had targeted transmission or engine plants, one auto industry expert predicted that the UAW could shut down approximately 3/4th of auto production across the US. 

“Two plants per company, you can pretty much idle North America,” Jeff Schuster, global head of automotive for GlobalData, told CNN earlier this week. 

Instead, the UAW targeted final assembly plants of car lines that the Big Three and their associated dealerships had stockpiled. The plants include Toledo’s Stellantis Jeep Wrangler final assembly plant, Ford Michigan Assembly, which makes Broncos and Rangers, and GM’s Wentzville, Missouri plant, which makes vans and second-tier trucks. 

In advance of the strike, the auto companies and dealerships prepared for the strike by building up months worth of inventories of these cars, according to Kelley Blue Book, meaning that the strike’s economic impact on the Big Three would not be felt for several months. 

“Big Three is laughing at y’all,” said Jimmy Taylor, a GM worker in Spring Hill, Tennessee. “Business as usual [for the UAW].” 

When Fain announced this week the union would engage in “limited and targeted” strikes, he argued that the strategy would allow the union to preserve its strike fund while targeting the strategic points of the Big Three’s supply chain. 

 “We’re gonna hit where we need to hit. And where we need to hit, we’re gonna hit to move mountains,” Fain told union members on a Facebook live earlier this week. 

However, some UAW members have argued that if Fain wanted to make a “limited and targeted approach,” he should have gone after parts suppliers. 

“If you want to make a big impact with low costs to the strike funds, all GM parts plants and Mopar [Stellantis parts plants] should also be on strike,” said 15-year Stellantis employee Melissa Shutstock if New Baltimore, Michigan. “They were deemed essential by our government and dealerships during COVID, yet the companies still want to act like they are beneath the assembly plants and offer different pay scales and lower wages. This just drives a wedge between workers and goes against the UAW ideal of “all equal, all solidarity.” 

However, targeting parts suppliers would draw the ire of the Biden Administration, which has invested over $15 billion in transitioning auto suppliers to produce electric vehicles. 

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the Biden Administration was “alarmed” by the impact a UAW strike could have on its attempts to transform the auto supplier industry. According to their report, the Biden Administration was preparing emergency measures to provide financial aid to parts suppliers that could negatively impact.

With an election a little over a year away, the Biden Administration has repeatedly intervened in strikes that they worry could negatively affect the economy. 

In 2022, the Biden Administration used federal powers to block a railroad workers’ strike. This year, the Biden Administration intervened to help negotiate deals to prevent strikes both at UPS and on the West Coast Ports. 

Now, the Biden Administration has announced publicly that they are working to broker a deal to prevent the UAW strike from spreading. In the process, the UAW has so far chosen not to target the auto suppliers that the Biden Administration has worked hard to protect. 

It remains to be seen if the UAW will choose to target the auto parts suppliers, whose closure could cripple the auto industry, or will take a more modest approach in how they confront the Big Three. The outcome will likely determine whether Shawn Fain is seen as a union reformer or another “business-as-usual” UAW leader.

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]