You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 70: Labor Strikes Back

Labor Strikes Back

Organized labor is having a moment. In this episode, School of International Service professor Stephen Silvia joins Big World to discuss the evolution of the labor movement, the significance of the recent United Auto Workers strike and recent organizing attempts by both Starbucks and Amazon employees, and what the future holds for unions.

Silvia, who researches comparative labor employment relations with a focus on the US and Germany, begins our conversation by discussing how union organizing has changed over the past few decades (1:50). Silvia also analyzes the importance of the recent UAW strike and resulting contracts with the Big Three automakers (3:47) and discusses efforts by the UAW to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the American South, as detailed in his recent book, The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign Owned Vehicle Plants (8:22).

What challenges will the UAW face surrounding electric vehicle manufacturing (19:27)? How will organizers confront declining union membership (25:02)? Silvia answers these questions and discusses how the “union avoidance playbook” can make organizing difficult at places like Amazon and Starbucks (26:53). Silvia ends our conversation by explaining why Gen Z is making unions cool again (28:42).

In the “Take 5” segment (15:04), Silvia answers the question: What steps or practices are necessary for workers to have more of a voice in the workplace?

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. Labor unions are undoubtedly having a moment. Just looking at recent news, strikes in the Screen Actor's Guild and the Writer's Guild last fall and ongoing efforts to organize at Amazon and Starbucks brought the presence of unions directly into all Americans' daily lives and living rooms. Strikes within the United Auto Workers may not have resonated as strongly on a personal level for people who don't work in the auto industry, but Ford and General Motors still comprise two of the top manufacturing companies headquartered in the U.S. Their economic impact is huge. And this has all happened against a backdrop of union organizing in sectors like higher education and think tanks in which labor unions were previously only something that was studied from a distance.

1:01      KS: So today we're talking about labor unions and union organizing. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Stephen Silvia. Steve is a professor in the School of International Service. He teaches international economics, international relations, and comparative politics, and he researches labor, employment relations, and economic policy with a focus on Germany and the United States. He's also the author of a recent book that we will discuss today, the UAW's Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign Owned Vehicle Plants. Steve, thanks for joining Big World.

1:32      Stephen Silvia: Thank you for inviting me.

1:34      KS: It's good to see you again.

1:35      SS: Yes.

1:36      KS: It's been a while. Steve, the last time that you and I spoke for this podcast was several years ago. I was reading through the transcript, and it's clear from a glance that a lot has changed in labor organizing since 2017. But I want to start by taking a slightly longer view. Over the past few decades, how has union organizing and the labor movement changed?

1:59      SS: Well, it's changed in a lot of ways. To focus on a couple of things if we look at organizing, I think the internet and social media have really dramatically changed the way organizing happens, that so much more happens through those media. And not just from the union side, but from the employer's side as well. One can take a company like Amazon, and one of the things that they do is they monitor so closely their employees, they monitor their movements, they really monitor the pace and rhythm of how they work. So that's also affected things. But along with that monitoring, they monitor whether the employees are communicating with one another and they're looking for organizing activity. And from their perspective, they're trying to stop it.

2:48      SS: I'd say another thing in the area where I focused on in my most recent book has been looking at state and local governments, particularly in the South, that as they've paid bigger and bigger subsidies, hundreds of millions of dollars to get automobile plants, the Southern politicians have gotten more and more involved in trying to keep unions out of their states.

3:16      KS: So that activity that you mentioned, particularly from Amazon, that type of employee monitoring, is that legal?

3:23      SS: It's a good question. It's something that is legal because the United States has very loose employment regulations. No one has found it so far illegal, but there's larger questions about ethics and privacy that are involved in that sort of monitoring.

3:47      KS: Steve, in the fall of 2023, the UAW, the United Auto Workers union, began a series of strikes at factories owned by Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, as you know. The UAW announced in November that its members had ratified contracts with all big three automakers. How significant was this strike, and do you feel the UAW and its members got what they were looking for out of the agreement?

4:13      SS: This was a huge strike. This was really a watershed strike in the history of labor in the United States. And one of the reasons is that you've had a change in leadership at the UAW. There had been a corruption scandal that triggered changes in how the UAW Executive Board and President are elected. They're now elected directly by the members. And the team that was elected, they decided to take a much more militant approach. And their conclusion was that the previous series of union presidents had gotten a little too close to the companies, and this time they were trying to get more for the employees. And their analysis was that these previous union presidents, they did not get enough for cooperating closely with management. So they wanted to make up for what was not gotten over the last 20 or so years.

5:18      KS: Were they also trying to, I guess, change the narrative, because when the U.S. auto industry almost collapsed or did collapse back in, was that during the housing crisis, 2008?

5:29      SS: Financial crisis.

5:30      KS: Financial crisis, right. That there was this sense that the UAW had to get in the boat and row in the same direction as the car companies in order to save the auto industry. They needed to play along, basically. They needed to give concessions so that the auto industry wouldn't go under. So was this recent strike an attempt to reset that relationship back to where it had been previously of being a little bit more adversarial and more about getting concessions from the companies? Or am I completely off base?

6:02      SS: I think the criticism of the previous UAW leaders was a bit easier to make in hindsight, because what they were focused on was trying to save jobs.

6:13      KS: Right.

6:14      SS: And there were a series of instances, beginning in the 1970s, when union leaders made concessions in order to save jobs. And the big concession that they made was in 2007 when they decided to have new hires get paid significantly less, only about two-thirds of what the legacy employees would get, for doing the exact same job. So as the older employees retired, the new employees come in. A bigger and bigger percentage of the workforce was getting that second tier and they weren't happy about it.

7:02      KS: Okay. So it's almost like the bill came due from 2007 from those concessions?

7:09      SS: Yeah. It's something that at the moment in 2007 it made sense to do and it was easy to pass because everybody who voted for it wouldn't suffer from the sacrifice. But eventually that snowballed and became bigger and bigger. And the union people say that they anticipated being able to undo it much sooner than they did, but it was in this contract that, that was one of the primary goals was to undo the two tier structure. And they succeeded in getting that.

7:47      KS: Okay.

7:47      SS: They also got a substantial wage increase. You calculate it, it's going to be about 26% over four and a half years, which isn't bad.

7:57      KS: That's a lot.

7:57      SS: They also got a cost of living increase re-instituted into their contracts, which they had had for many years. And the final big thing that they got is they got a commitment from the companies that new plants that produce electric vehicles will be under the UAW contract.

8:22      KS: Okay. All right. And we're going to talk about electric vehicles, for sure. And I do want to get into your book a little bit, Steve. Your book that you published last year, as we mentioned, is titled "The UAW's Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign Owned Vehicle Plants." And you've also published several research articles on this topic. Companies with plants in the Southern U.S. include Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen, Nissan, Kia, all of them, basically. The list goes on and on. We know that these auto companies didn't move to the South because of the nice warm weather. They did it because the South isn't traditionally fertile ground for organized labor, at least in part. So tell us a little bit about the UAW's efforts to organize foreign-owned auto plants in recent decades in the American South, and have their efforts been successful?

9:08      SS: They've been partially successful, particularly early on when Freightliner, which is a truck company that has its headquarters in Oregon, in the 1980s, they decided to build some plants in North Carolina. And then shortly after that, the German company, Daimler, bought Freightliner and the UAW shortly after that tried to organize, and succeeded in organizing the principal plant in Mount Holly, North Carolina. And they succeeded in part because of cooperation with German employees, with the German Metal Workers Union and with the Works Council for Daimler. The head of the Works Council stepped in at an important moment and said to German management that, "If you make trouble for

10:00      SS: ... the UAW in North Carolina, you're going to have trouble with us, and that was an important statement that helped the UAW get a foothold in North Carolina. Then about a decade later, around 2000, the UAW came back and tried to organize three more plants that were owned by Daimler in North Carolina. They succeeded in part because under the German system, you can have employee representatives on corporate boards. In fact, you're required to have employee representatives on corporate boards of larger companies.

10:37      SS: The German Metal Workers' Union decided to give one of those seats to the UAW, and the UAW had a person on Daimler's board in Germany who worked out a deal to have a neutrality agreement for union elections for these three other plants, and they succeeded in unionizing those plants.

11:00      KS: I remember one of the first times I talked to you when I came to SIS, and you were explaining to me the difference in the German automakers and the US in terms of labor. And you mentioned the Works Council, that the German auto companies have what is called a Works Council, and it is not the same setup as the US labor setup, which is constructed to be adversarial between labor and management, in the sense that the Works Council works more closely with management. But you're saying in this case, the Works Council said, "We will take the influence that we have here in our German setup and we will use it to help the UAW achieve its goals in the US."?

11:40      SS: Yes.

11:41      KS: Okay.

11:41      SS: So, Germany's different. In the US, unions are the principal entity for employee voice.

11:49      KS: Mm-hmm. Right.

11:49      SS: In Germany, they're actually three.

11:52      KS: Okay.

11:52      SS: One is unions, and the unions are strong and important, but they tend to operate above the level of a workplace, that they bargain with employers associations. In the workplace, you have works councils, and that's elected bodies of employees, they elect representatives, and they have a series of powers that are granted in law. The third body is having employee representation on corporate boards.

12:27      KS: In your book, and you mentioned the case with the German automaker and the specific example of the German Works Council interacting with the UAW, were there any similar examples of organizing at any of the Japanese or Korean automakers—Toyota, Kia, any of those in the South? Or did it only work when there was a German company involved?

12:52      SS: I think when you look at it, it was only German companies where it got as far as it did, and that's because of German institutions-

13:02      KS: Right.

13:03      SS: ... and the German institutions that we've discussed.

13:07      KS: Right.

13:07      SS: In fact, I was just in Japan this last semester, and I met with the international affairs representative of the Japan Auto Workers and talked to him about this. The Japanese labor movement is much more decentralized, it's much more of an enterprise union structure. So there's a Nissan union and a Toyota union, and then the Japan Auto Workers is like a federation of unions.

13:32      SS: They were supportive, but there's no equivalent legislation to Germany for works councils or employee representation on corporate boards, so there wasn't that foundation to build on for the Japanese producers or the Korean producers that you had as a result of German law for the German companies.

13:57      KS: Right. You mentioned that there's a lot of political capital made by politicians from the South about being able to bring these companies here. So overall, against the backdrop of this great new contract for the UAW, what is the landscape for auto workers in the American South? Are they still mostly not union?

14:19      SS: Yes. When you look today, the majority of auto workers in the country are not under a union contract because of the rapid growth of mostly foreign companies in the South. One should also mention Tesla, and Tesla's main plant is in California.

14:38      KS: Okay.

14:38      SS: So right now, a majority of employees are non-union, and this is something that the new UAW president has identified is the next big task of the UAW is to try to organize these non-union plants, particularly those in the South.

15:04      KS: Steve Silvia, it's time to Take Five. You, our esteemed guest, get to daydream out loud with five policies or practices you believe would change things for the better. Even though union membership in the US is at a historic low, workers worldwide are clamoring for more of a voice. So, what steps or practices are necessary for workers to have more of a voice in the workplace?

15:28      SS: Some are happening, some are more of a dream. If I were to take five, the first one is better implementation of existing laws. That's been happening in the United States under the Biden administration. The new Chief Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board Jennifer Abruzzo has been unbelievably active in working within the existing law to give workers more voice, more say. So, I think that's number one.

15:57      SS: Number two in practice has been more of a daydream, and that is changing the law. There's a law that's in Congress that's called The PRO Act that would really simplify union recognition elections. We've seen the difficulties of them with Starbucks and Amazon. It was two years ago that the first Starbucks outlets voted for a union, they still don't have a contract. Similar story for Amazon. So simplifying things, having mandatory arbitration after a year. There'd be a number of things that could be done to fix our labor law.

16:36      SS: Now if we move beyond unions, a third thing would be passing legislation in the United States that would give workers seats on corporate boards. I think that would be very important. There is legislation that Tammy Baldwin, Senator of Wisconsin, Elizabeth Warren, Senator of Massachusetts, have proposed that would give workers more voice in their workplaces.

17:02      SS: Number four is a movement, it's called ESG, environment, social and governance policies. It's to move corporations beyond focusing simply on profits. There has been some progress in some areas. For example, Microsoft. Microsoft has been amazing in what it's done, it's become very progressive. It's signed a neutrality agreement with the American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations, which means that if any of its units want to have a union recognition election, that it would just let the election happen and would not come out against it. It shows that if a company really wants to have a progressive label, I'm looking at you Starbucks, that you need to really take it all the way and allow your workers, if they want to have a union, have an election without interfering with it before, during, and after the election takes place.

18:08      SS: The final thing, number five, is something that I'm looking at for my next book, which I'm just beginning, and that is looking to go beyond the highly legalistic system that we have for unionization, which I think in some ways often gets in the way for unionization. Really looking back to the period before the 1930s and looking at how workers mobilized, how they organized, how they got voice in the workplace back then.

18:46      SS: That particularly entails focusing on the workers for whom that was the most difficult. So that would be focusing on African American workers, so it would be looking at A. Philip Randolph and the organizing of porters in sleeping cars and trains, and looking at those authentic grassroots moments of solidarity— what made them happen to be able to take those lessons and apply them to the 21st century.

19:21      KS: Thank you.

19:27      KS: So, let's talk about electric cars. We mentioned that the Biden administration wants at least 50% of all new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030. So what impact will the uptick in electric vehicle manufacturing have on the UAW, and what challenges do you anticipate the UAW as a union and its workers facing with this challenge of electric vehicles?

19:50      SS: So electric vehicles pose several challenges for the UAW, for auto workers in general. One is electric vehicles are a lot simpler,

20:00      SS: and something that is a lot simpler to make needs fewer workers. So the question of how to do a transition is wrapped up in that larger picture of how many employees are you really going to need to make cars in the future? And so the UAW is trying to manage that.

20:23      SS: The second dimension is that the US companies, the domestic companies, they've been doing joint ventures, particularly with battery production, with Korean companies, other companies. And so the question that arises is, would these joint ventures fall under the UAW main contract? And this is one of the things that the UAW pushed for in the recent negotiations to try to secure that.

20:56      SS: A third element that's in this is new players. I've mentioned Tesla is a new player. There's been discussion in the background. Does Apple want to get into this? Do other companies that traditionally haven't been involved want to get into making electric vehicles? So that would pose a challenge because the UAW would have to organize these companies. Many of them do not have any unionized employees currently. So it would be starting from scratch. Those are the series of issues that confront the United Auto Workers in dealing with electric vehicles.

21:37      SS: Now, you mentioned the Biden administration. And the Biden administration has, in legislation and regulation, been trying to make the production of electric vehicles be what President Biden calls good union-paying jobs. So there's been an effort to do that. And one of the pieces of doing this has been the Department of Energy setting regulations for what constitutes a good job. And the UAW has been working hard to try to make this a lot like the kind of laws we have in construction in the United States at the moment. We have something that's called prevailing wage legislation, and that is federal construction contracts, they typically have to pay a prevailing wage, which is more often than not the union wage.

22:41      SS: And so the UAW is trying to get that sort of mechanism installed through regulation for the production of electric vehicles. And then they could turn around to a company like Tesla and say, you aren't meeting the prevailing wage legislation, and really try to link a union contract, the UAW contract, as the principal thing defining what a prevailing wage is.

23:14      KS: Yeah, and it's interesting when you said that Tesla in California is not organized. California is always thought of as a very progressive state in all of its politics. And it is indeed one of the reasons, one of the big push behind electric vehicles to begin with. So it's interesting that the biggest name in electric cars, Tesla, would have unorganized labor in California. Do you think that the political scene in California will push in that direction? Because I am sure their politicians don't want to be seen as electric vehicle, but anti-union.

23:48      SS: Yes, I think so. When you look at Tesla, Elon Musk is perhaps the definitive tech bro, and therefore he's very libertarian, and he's expressed an animosity toward unions in many occasions. So he's fought unions, not just here, but there have been a series of disputes he's had with unions in Europe recently. And the other dimension of organizing Tesla was that at first it was very difficult because compensation included stock options. And when stock options were going way, way up for Tesla, the employees looked at it and said, "What is the union going to get me when my stock options are, in some instances, matching my salary as far as their increase in value?"

24:46      SS: But after Elon Musk took over Twitter, there was a response in the market that affected Tesla. And so the Tesla stock has not been rising like it did in its glory days.

25:02      KS: Okay. So that's interesting. Union membership has been steadily declining since the 1980s, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of January 2023, union membership was at 10.1%, which is the lowest rate on record. Looking to the future, how do you think union organizers will address declining membership? How are they currently approaching this decline in membership, and are they concerned about it?

25:32      SS: They're very concerned about it. Unions have been concerned about declining membership for 50 years. I mean, one must say that it is really hard to organize a union in this country because employers have gotten more and more sophisticated in how they fight unions. And in my book, I talk about something called the "union avoidance playbook" that has evolved, a lot of it evolved in the auto industry, but not only the auto industry, that has been a set of tactics that employers have used to fight unions. And they include, if it's manufacturing, putting your plant in a rural area where it's very hard to organize people because there's no there there, there's no town. And people drive from a hundred-mile radius to work there. The other dimension of putting it in a rural area is a job in an auto plant is the best job by far, so people look at that and say, why would I risk this job, which is better than what else I could get, which would be working in a 7-11 or something at minimum wage in states where minimum wage is still $7.25.

26:53      SS: And the other dimensions of this union avoidance playbook is having monitors throughout the plants, television monitors that broadcast pro-company, anti-union messages. I mentioned the kind of physical monitoring that Amazon does, that sort of thing is another dimension. And not just monitoring your movements, but monitoring your email and other things. And so there's a variety of steps that have evolved that employers have learned to do. And there's a whole set of union avoidance law firms that have led to the dissemination of these practices among employers in the United States.

27:39      KS: And I have a question about that, but I have to ask, playing propaganda videos on the floor of a plant, it sounds like a guaranteed way to annoy people and make them not sympathetic to their company. Does that work? What is the goal of having pro-company... I'm just trying to imagine myself working and having this background of a chirpy corporate message about how great my boss is. Is that what they are?

28:02      SS: Yes, but they're not just that. So there are some positive, there are many positive things like that "we're building, we're putting a new plant here and there." But there's also, if there's ever a strike or ever anything, the UAW corruption scandal, or any problems in the domestic auto workers, they're very quick to put those messages out there as well. So I think they've learned to be sophisticated in the way they do it, so it isn't so irritating.

28:39      KS: That sounds unbelievably obnoxious. Steve, unions in the US have moved from the traditional area, the manufacturing sector, to the service sector and beyond, including jobs typically considered white collar desk jobs, like in think tanks and nonprofits and universities. I think the history of unions, even if people don't know a lot about the specifics, and they probably should know more, were about trying to not just guarantee livable wages and retirement for people, but also to guarantee safe working conditions and manufacturing settings where it was dangerous.

29:15      KS: And I think there's a lot of writing that's been done about Amazon warehouses and Starbucks and the physical toll that those jobs can take and what's required of an Amazon warehouse worker and the amount of weight that you'll be lifting over eight hours and the amount of steps that you'll be taking in the warehouse and just the types of injuries that can happen. And you only have to be at a Starbucks at 8:00 AM in any city to see how much these people who are working behind the counter are doing and how quickly they're working, how many things they're balancing, how much heat they're working around. I mean, these are not jobs where you go home feeling like you're just really energized. You leave

30:00      KS: ... feeling tired. I am wondering why jobs that are typically considered white-collar desk jobs where you don't think about a physical toll in the same way, like for a think tank or a university, why unions have moved in that direction and why it's been successful. Why do you think that is?

30:19      SS: Well, I think a lot of this follows the structure of employment in the United States. If you go way back for unions, you go back to Civil War era and into the 19th century, unions were principally white male, Northern European skilled workers. And that was where the unions were concentrated. In that era, those union members, many of them said, "We can't organize women, we can't organize minorities, we can't organize even unskilled white males who came from Southern Europe, because they're just impossible to organize."

30:59      SS: But as production changed and as we had manufacturing change, it became clear that the center of gravity of the economy was moving toward mass manufacturing and those workers organized. And then in the 1960s, the big organizing drive was in government employment. As government employment grew, then the center of gravity of production of employment went there. And even today, one third of the government employees are unionized versus 6% in the private sector. So that legacy has held on.

31:42      KS: Does that include teachers?

31:43      SS: That includes teachers. And that's even with restrictions. So there are many states that have restrictions on who can organize, what can be discussed, whether you can go on strike, things like that. But you still have the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, but it's also police and fire. And it's just your average people working in your motor vehicle department or working doing whatever state and county governments are doing. Most of those employees are unionized, particularly those outside of the South.

32:22      SS: Now, what's happened, beginning in the 1960s, was a decline of manufacturing in the private sector in a rise of private sector service employment. And so that's something that has evolved. And when you look at it, I'd say there are a couple of areas in the service sector. One is the kind of job, Amazon warehouse or working at Starbucks, which isn't a white collar office job. But then there's also the white collar office jobs that have grown as a percentage of employment. So I think part of it is employment has moved in this direction.

33:02      SS: The thing that I think is very different in recent years, I think some of it has to do with the end of the Cold War actually, that the attitude toward communism and left wing sort of things, it isn't as salient as it was during the Cold War. And so it's very interesting when you talk to students today and people in their 20s that they really don't have that sort of, "Ah, that's all communist and therefore it's bad," attitude. It's more like, "Boy, the employers are really giving us a raw deal. What are the one set of organizations that have historically dealt with this?" And it has been the labor unions.

33:51      SS: And so it's very interesting that you see this interest in the youth, in people in their 20s and 30s about unions, which didn't exist 10, 15 years ago. And a lot of it, I think, has to do with the way employers have been treating our 20 and 30 years old with contingent jobs and really not treating them well at all. So the traditional remedy is unions, and it's made unions cool again.

34:25      KS: Gen Z, making unions cool again. Yeah. Last question. When you look at the historically low membership, and then you look at the seeming kind of attention that's been driven in the news and generationally by this idea that unions can accomplish wins for workers, and then we have our current political climate, which is always interesting, are you optimistic about the near-term future for workers?

34:57      SS: I am optimistic, and I'm optimistic for a couple of reasons. One, because today's generation has rediscovered the importance of trying to have a voice in the workplace. And I think that's very, very important. I'm also optimistic because of demographic trends. With the birth rates tipping and changes, not just in the United States, but throughout much of the world, places like China, Europe, that there is going to be a greater shortage of workers. And one of the reasons why workers lost bargaining power over the last 30 or 40 years has been an expansion of the supply of the labor force, not just with births, but with the end of the Cold War. It meant that hundreds of millions of people who were not in the same economy became part of the same economy. It's part of the trend towards globalization.

36:09      SS: China and India moving away from being closed economies to open economies was the biggest surge of over a billion employees into the workforce. And that trend is beginning to tip. And when that trend tips, that means that workers, just as far as supply and demand, are going to be in a better position, and that'll give them more leverage. So besides these political changes, these generational changes, I think that larger picture is going to give workers a little more leverage in bargaining with their employers.

36:57      KS: Steve Silvia, thank you for joining Big World and talking about labor unions. As always, it's been a pleasure to speak with you.

37:03      SS: Thank you.

37:05      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, wherever you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like Oprah giving us a new car. Our theme music is It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Stephen Silvia,
SIS professor

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