UAW to corporations: Guarantee retirement income or face a general strike
United Auto Workers members attend a rally in Detroit, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. | Paul Sancya/AP

WASHINGTON—In their successful “Stand Up!” rolling strike that won big gains and givebacks last year, the Auto Workers found out Ford, GM and Stellantis—formerly FiatChrysler —had one “red line” in bargaining they would not let the union cross: A guaranteed retirement for their workers, independent of the vagaries of the stock market.

In other words, good old-fashioned defined benefit pensions. Now the union wants to get them back.

And if they don’t get them, they’ll shut the firms down in 2028 To back up their position the UAW is lobbying other unions to end their contracts simultaneously on May Day, 2028 to achieve the national pension goal. UAW President Shawn Fain committed himself and his union to fight for this goal.

In other words, as he put it, “a general strike” on May Day of that year might have to happen to gain guaranteed retirement for all workers.

UAW is launching a two-pronged strategy to bring those defined benefit pensions back, not just for Auto Workers, but for the entire U.S. workforce. And that’s a monumental task, executive board members plus Fain told the opening session of the union’s legislative conference, meeting in D.C. on January 22.

That’s because only 15% of U.S. workers have that traditional pension, rather than 401(k) accounts subject to Wall Street swings, or, worse, nothing at all. Fain stated 20% of retirees struggle to get along on $13,500 a year, or less. Almost half of all workers aged 55-65 have no retirement savings, either.

UAW’s first prong was to arm conference delegates with those facts and more and send them to Capitol Hill, starting that afternoon, for three days of meetings with lawmakers or their aides.

The union briefers made the point that not only do few workers have that gold-standard pension, but that many firms refuse to provide any pension, leaving retirees and near-retirees to struggle along on Social Security benefits. Those sums rarely pay enough for basic living expenses. After all, “The average Social Security benefit is $1688 per month,” Fain said.

Second prong more ambitious

But the second prong, which Fain outlined, is more ambitious: Make guaranteed retirement income, through the stable old-style pensions, not just an Auto Worker cause and not just at the Detroit-based car companies.

Instead, he said UAW structured its contracts with Ford, GM and Stellantis to all expire on May Day, 2028—and he’s going to lobby other unions to do the same thing, and for the same cause.

And what happens if corporate America resists? And persists in shortchanging its workers retirement or providing none at all?

“A general strike,” Fain warned.

“We are not waiting for our 2028 negotiations. We are going to stand up and fight for our future,” he declared. It’s an issue that affects not just veteran workers, but the increasing  numbers of younger workers who are enlisting in organized labor’s ranks, Fain added.

“The Big Three, Wall Street, corporations and the federal government are officially on notice: We are not just fighting for our contracts that serves working people. We are fighting for a program that serves humanity, not corporate greed,” he continued.

While UAW successfully won elimination of the two-tier pay system at the Detroit-based car companies, “The biggest tier of all is between those who have pensions and health care”—rich CEOs and their Wall Street backers—“and those who do not,” the rest of us.

And if companies don’t provide those guaranteed retirements, “a bigger” entity, the federal government, will, Fain stated as the union’s objective. “Our job now is to take” the lesson of unity and strength of the Stand Up! Strike, use it in the guaranteed pension cause, “and bring it to the working class and to the halls of power”  for everyone.

He also didn’t exempt Congress from scrutiny. Once again, Fain was direct:

“Our message is simple: Support our cause or you will not get our endorsement.”

Fain warned the proposal would face fierce opposition from Wall Street and the corporate class. He added those honchos and financiers would once again try to divide workers by race, sex and class, to deflect workers’ attention from the harms—including lack of pensions—the 1% has inflicted over the last five decades upon the rest of us.

“It is our duty, and, better yet, our obligation, to turn that system upside down.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.