Striking Autoworkers Have Made Major Strides. They’re Not Done Yet.

Lisa Xu and Chris Budnick on the power of worker organizing—and the UAW’s newfound militance.

Teddy Ostrow and Ruby Walsh

Kierra Taylor, 33, stands in a picket line outside of the Ford Motor Co. Kentucky Truck Plant in the morning hours on October 14, 2023 in Louisville, Kentucky. Michael Swensen/Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

Nearly five weeks into the UAW’s historic Stand-Up-Strike, there are just under 34,000 Big Three Auto Workers on strike in assembly plants and parts depots across the country. The latest escalation came on Wednesday, October 11, when the union called on 8,700 Ford workers at the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, Kentucky, to walk off the job. 

For this episode, we’re bringing you a UAW Strike update. You’ll hear from two guests: Chris Budnick and Lisa Xu. Chris is a striking Ford worker at the Kentucky Truck Plant and the co-chair of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD). Lisa is an organizer at the labor movement publication and organizing project Labor Notes, and she was previously an organizer with UAWD. 

Chris and Lisa bring us up to speed on the strike escalations, discuss how non-striking Auto Workers are participating in the Stand-Up, and unpack the massive concession made by General Motors last week – the folding of their battery plants into the UAW’s master contract with the company. 

Finally, we take a step back to reflect on the Stand-Up-Strike overall. We take stock not just on what was won contractually so far, but also on how far the union has come in the past year, and where it’s going.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Lisa Xu: Class warfare has been going on for a long time. It’s just that the working class needs to waken to the fact that capital has been waging class warfare against the working class for decades and has sort of quelled a lot of the militancy and the ability to fight back.

And I think what’s been so amazing is seeing everyone, including workers around the world kind of taking note of what’s happening in the UAW and seeing such an important historical union … and say, you know, this is not a one-sided class struggle.

Chris Budnick: It’s a bottom up approach at this point. Now that we have a good start, we have good leadership at the top to encourage us and engage us and educate us … building militancy in the union, to constantly fight a lot harder with these companies and the hope is that it’s going to really build our union and the labor movement to heights we’ve never seen before

Teddy Ostrow: Hello my name is Teddy Ostrow. Welcome to The Upsurge, a podcast about the future of the American labor movement.

This podcast covers the renewed militancy of the United Auto Workers, the legendary union that right now, for the first time in its history, is striking each of the Big Three automakers at once. That’s Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, the owner of Chrysler, Jeep and other brands. 

The Upsurge is produced in partnership with In These Times and The Real News Network. Both are nonprofit media organizations that cover the labor movement closely. Check them out at inthe​se​times​.com and the​re​al​news​.com where you can also find an archive of all our past episodes.

And quick reminder: This is a listener-supported podcast. So please, if you want it to keep going, head on over to patre​on​.com/​u​p​s​u​r​gepod and become a monthly contributor today. You can find a link in the description. We can’t do this without you. 

A lot has happened since our last episode, and there’s a lot more that could happen before this strike is done. So, in this episode we’re bringing you a UAW Stand-Up-Strike update with two excellent guests. 

It’s not completely necessary, but if you haven’t already, check out Episode 14 and 15 for more context on the UAW strike. There’s definitely a little more assumed knowledge in this episode.

We’re going to speed along to the interview, but just a quick set up: Right now, there are just under 34,000 Big Three Auto Workers on strike in assembly plants and parts depots across the country. 

The latest escalation came on Wednesday, October 11. The UAW called on 8,700 Ford workers at the highly profitable Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, Kentucky, to walk off the job. 

Reportedly, this came after Ford refused to improve its economic offer in bargaining. Rather than waiting till Friday to announce the new strike targets, as they’ve done in recent, UAW President Shawn Fain and the international initiated what appears to be a new phase of the Stand-Up-Strike. Escalations, or new calls for standing up, won’t be relegated to a routine Friday announcement, but rather, they could come at any time. 

Anyway, I talked about this and more with my two guests, Chris Budnick and Lisa Xu. 

Chris Budnick is a Ford worker of 11 years. He’s originally from Michigan but has moved around and ended up at the now-on-strike Kentucky Truck Plant. He’s also co-chair of the union reform caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy, or UAWD. Lisa Xu is an organizer at the labor movement publication and organizing project Labor Notes, and she was previously an organizer with UAWD. 

Chris and Lisa helped bring us up to date as far as the strike escalations, but we also talked about how non-striking Auto Workers are participating in the Stand-Up, as well as the truly huge concession made by GM related to its electrical vehicle operations. After the UAW threatened to strike its most profitable facility in Arlington, Texas, General Motors conceded to folding its battery plants, which are legally separate from its other operations, into the UAW’s master contract with the company. We’ll talk about why that is such a big deal. 

And finally, we also took a step back to reflect on the Stand-Up-Strike overall. We took stock not just on what was won contractually, but also on how far the union has come in the past year, and where its going. 

Teddy Ostrow: Chris Budnick and Lisa Xu welcome to The Upsurge.

Lisa Xu: Thanks for having us.

Chris Budnick: Yeah. Thank you for having us. 

Teddy Ostrow: To begin, can you guys just tell listeners a little bit about yourselves? Chris, we can start with you?

Chris Budnick: I’ve been a UAW member for 11 years this November. I’ve been at 4 different plants originally from Michigan and I’ve been working for Ford, but I finally settled down here in Louisville, Kentucky at Local 862, at the Kentucky Truck Plant and, I’m also very active in other areas, with Unite All Workers for Democracy, I’m co-chair on that steering committee. So that’s just a little bit about me. 

Lisa Xu: I was also a UAW member, I was a member of the Harvard Graduate Students Union and organized for the local for a few years, and then I was hired as the first staff organizer for UAWD, which is where I got to know Chris, and now I work for Labor Notes as an organizer.

Teddy Ostrow: Great, thank you guys so much for those introductions. The last episode of The Upsurge left off shortly after the 38 GM and Stellantis parts distribution centers, or PDCs as they’re called, were called to stand up. Since then, 3 more facilities, I believe, have joined the Stand-Up-Strike. 

I’d like to start with the most recent escalation and then we can go backwards and work our way to the present. So, Chris, I have a kind of packed question for you. We’re speaking on October 16th. You have been on strike at your facility, Ford’s Kentucky truck plant, as of October 11th. Can you give us a 360 of that plant and explain why it’s so significant you guys have joined the fight, what this means as an escalation? Maybe we can start with the basics of the plant. For example, you know: What do you even build? And then we can move on to, why do you think the UAW chose to strike the facility? What’s so significant about it to Ford?

Please tell us about the feelings, the energy of the membership of you in the plant leading up to the strike, as well as, what it was like when it was finally called and how it’s been on the picket line since they went up? 

Chris Budnick: Yeah, sure. That is a lot of questions. but yeah, absolutely.

Ford [has] always bragged about how much money they make. So I’ll get into a little bit of that, but [the] Kentucky truck plant, they make the, F-series Super Duty. That’s like the F-250 to the F-550, along with the Ford Expedition and the Ford Navigator.

The KTP plant produces a truck every 37 seconds. And one of those things they told us just in orientation when we first got there is that back in 2016, they [had] $15,000 in profit per vehicle that’s produced coming out of there. Now it’s gone up to like at least $18,000 per truck. And that’s every 37 seconds.

They also brag about how the Kentucky truck plant makes over half of Ford’s revenue in North America, which is pretty huge, but obviously we can see how much it’s important to Ford to keep it running, and to be able to use that in an escalating strike is a hell of a tool to use. So, you know, leading up to the strike, I myself was doing 10 minute meetings with folks in my department. I was running four different meetings at one point for a few weeks, like with skilled trades and the forklift drivers, repair guys, and then just the regular production, just to talk about what are we fighting for, and give them updates, what’s going on and get the communication started even from my local to them, by using our local UAW 862 app we have and signing those pledge cards, just really educating and informing folks and [having] a place to talk about something right before our shift starts. And I typically did it on a Wednesday, and to promote, [we’d] try to do a red shirt Wednesday in solidarity, to build up and to try to put as much pressure as we could on the company and on management, leading up to the deadline of the contract, then my local also, and I helped a little bit with this … We held 2 practice pickets and we did a rally, after the deadline. You could see it just in the 10 minute meetings I did, even though they’re kind of small, it would have an attendance of maybe anywhere from 12 to 26, members, each meeting, so leading up to it, I was getting folks to chant, Who are we, UAW”, and everyone was super excited once the deadline hit and then once we found out we’re doing this strategic Stand-Up-Strike where only certain plants are going out, you know, a lot of energy kind of dropped a little.

But I continued the 10 minute meetings and tried to keep folks energized about it. I also educated [myself], I wasn’t even educated on it. I had to listen to that video UAW put out by the lawyer about how to work on an expired contract. What does this even mean? So it’s a lot of new stuff we’re learning as we’re going, and, I tell you, we’ve only been able to escalate this contract campaign three months before the deadline and that is a very short amount of time and I used UPS … and their contract campaign, I use them as an example all the time because we have the world headquarters in Louisville, Local 89 Teamsters and we visited their practice pickets. I use them as an example to folks in my plant to just let them know how much they escalated, from July of 2022, all the way to July 2023 of their contract expiration, and they got to use all their tools, and their toolbox. And, well, they threatened that last tool of a strike and they got a historic contract. So I had to explain to folks, this strategy. And trust me, I was kind of mad too.

I was hoping all three, everyone’s going to go out, me personally, but after thinking it through and talking to a few people, I realized, we have a lot of tools left because we only got to do a contract campaign for three months or less. So we have a lot of tools to use and we need to use them. And we have a lot of maneuvering we can do with the Big Three and all these plans we have.

So, that kind of got folks a little more energized but you can’t keep everyone happy and energetic about, I think it was what, four weeks. Essentially we waited almost four weeks until we were called out. 

We were called out on October 11th at like 5:38 PM, or at least my local president got a call then. I don’t know exactly. I didn’t get out of the plant until, 6:30-ish. That feeling was crazy. I just, that butterfly feeling in the stomach and just like getting all shaky or whatever.

And I just get out there and the road is just completely packed full of cars, you have 3,000 typically in a shift and so 3,000 cars are all out in the road. But I walked down. See, where the picket lines are, see if there’s anyone doing anything, cause it was kind of last minute.

It was a lot different than getting the two hour notice. I ran into my local president and he gave me some signs and he’s like, I need you to go out to this special location,” which was a rail yard run by the Teamsters. And I just want to make sure that if they see picketers there, they’re going to turn around and not pick up any trucks and get out of there. So, yeah, I mean, I think the energy is still pretty, it’s leveled out. We’ll see what happens. 

Working on an expired contract, we’ve got to make sure that nothing is changing the status quo.

Teddy Ostrow: One thing I’m curious about is, you mentioned going to visit the Teamster picket lines. Have you seen Teamsters visiting you guys? Like, I’m just curious about the community support given just how huge of a plant this is and how important it is. And also just the surprise nature of it compared to previous, escalations that were, I mean, they were surprises then too, but there was every Friday, you know, two hours’ notice, as you said, and sort of an expectation that somewhere in the country, there will be folks standing up, but you guys, like smack dab in the middle of the week, Wednesday, all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, you’re going out.” I’m curious how community support has been, and the energy sort of surrounding you guys. 

Chris Budnick: Yeah, the Teamsters. That’s one thing I forgot as I was walking out and I walked down through all the gates and I ran into my president, I happened to run into the organizer for local 89 Teamsters and also the communications director. They’re already out there with cameras and just helping out in any way they could just to get some signs and they’re very excited and they’re to support us, 100%, even when I was on my picket duty, the special one, we had some Teamsters come out and just like, Hey, did anyone cross, anybody crossed the line?” I’m like, Nope, I haven’t seen anyone yet.” It’s just some supervisors leave and they locked up the gate. That’s another thing I kind of want to throw out there is, you know, we have 11 picket lines with about 12 picketers at each one doing 4 hour shifts, so that’s over 700 picketers a day and we have 80 and so each week we can, basically I have 5, 000 members on the picket line and that still leaves about 3,700 or 4,000, members that so there’s a lot of folks that are have a high anxiety of wanting to get out to the picket line, so they can get a strike check and all that. 

But going back to community support, there’s this New York pizza place, the very first day donated a bunch of pizzas. I got to try some of it. I used to go there for lunch here. They’re really good pizza. And then also a big pizza company most recently came out, called Bear Nose in Louisville. And they, I think they donated 60 pizzas, which is really cool.

Then, along with, I think, Bowling Green, Kentucky, I forgot their local number, 2164. They make the Corvette. They came up this weekend in support. I think they brought some supplies. And then I heard Spring Hill, Tennessee, the GM plant there,1853, I think their local is coming up this week.

So, we have a lot of union support and I think the community support is slowly building up. There’s a small grocery store that offers 10 percent off to striking workers, all you have to do is show them your badge, so little by little, we’re getting some more support. 

Teddy Ostrow: I’m happy to hear that it’s sort of building momentum. I wanted to go to you, Lisa, you’ve been doing excellent reporting on the strike for Labor Notes. And Chris just laid out this most recent escalation, but can you outline for us the strike overall from the PDC standups to now, I’m starting with the PDCs cause that’s where I left off on The Upsurge last time. But also, specifically on the PDCs, I want to give you space to elaborate on that as well, because I know you’ve dug into them a little bit in your reporting, you know, what the purpose was and the significance of that specific escalation, but then please, bring us up to the present.

Lisa Xu: Yeah, definitely. So let me try to give the overview. So, on the first day of the strike, September 15th, we had three assembly plants walk out. The next week, parts distribution centers, 38 of them across GM and Stellantis were taken out and Ford was spared. Then the following week, two assembly plants, one at Ford and one at GM came out, and Stellantis was spared, and then, the next week, no escalations. We had a big win from GM, which I think we’ll talk about later. And then, the following week, Chris’s plant, the Kentucky truck plant was brought out. So, in the second week, we saw this major escalation with the parts distribution centers being brought out because these are big profit centers for the big three.

So, in, the article I wrote for Labor Notes, I talked about how the Big Three make a ton of money off of selling spare parts to dealerships. I think a lot of people, when they have to go to your dealership for some replacement part, the dealership marks up that part, but the Big Three also have a huge markup on those parts as well.

So for those warehouses to shut down, it has an immediate impact on their profits. Another really important aspect of this escalation, I think, is that unlike the assembly plants, which tend to be more concentrated in the Midwest and a few other parts of the country, the parts distribution centers are spread out all across the country, you can see this on a map. Some of them, many of them are near big urban. centers. So it’s brought the strike to many more Americans. And it’s also a way for people who support the workers to come out to the picket line if they don’t live near a big plant, in Detroit or the Midwest.

So those are some of the aspects of why this escalation the second week was so significant. 

Teddy Ostrow: Totally. And just to emphasize the part you mentioned about kind of bringing the picket lines to a broader swath of people around the country.

I participated in a canvassing of a dealership here in New York city where I am. And it was interesting to talk to people just walking by the dealership. You know, they said, Oh, auto workers are just in Michigan, right? They’re just in Ohio.” And I said, No, they’re actually 45 minutes outside of New York.” They’re in these various different places and you can totally go out and show your support, show your solidarity, around the country. And I think that’s an important thing to emphasize and also a very smart kind of strategic decision, in addition to obviously hitting the companies where they hurt, and their profits, I think one of the most inspiring elements I’ve seen of this strike is what folks who are technically not out yet have been doing to support their union family who are — I’m talking about rallies, practice pickets, these convoys we are seeing , lines of Chryslers or Jeeps circle the plants, but in particular, something I’m interested in is working-to-rule as it’s called. Chris, you only just joined the strike. So you’ve participated in some of these actions and Lisa, Labor Notes has been among the few outlets actually covering this element of the strike. Can you both tell me about some of these actions by non strikers right now? What is their purpose? What does it mean that UAW President Shawn Fain has been explicitly calling on rank-and-file to join in, in this way? Even though you’re not joining in on the literal strike, you are participating in the Stand-Up in your own way, with or without the approval of local leadership.

Chris Budnick: I can start. Yeah, ideally it’s good to kind-of build these escalations of work-to-rule and, no volunteer overtime before the contract expiration. But, if you can, to some degree, but like I said, we didn’t really have that time. Working on an expired contract, we’ve got to make sure that nothing is changing the status quo. So that if management does it, then it becomes an unfair labor practice and to report that, so that’s one of the actions you can take while you’re not on strike and working on an expired agreement. 

From my personal experience, on no voluntary overtime, I was offered, the weekend before our strike, to work Sunday and Monday. So that would have been a double time day and a time and a half day. And it was very tempting, but we all stood together and said no, and it didn’t happen, which was really cool to see, work-to-rule. That’s something that’s going to have to be educated and practiced and because there’s a lot of ramifications from management when you’re working-to-rule.

You don't always have to make it easier for the boss, right?

Teddy Ostrow: Can you explain that a little bit just for listeners, educate us a little bit actually on what that means and why that’s significant?

Chris Budnick: So yeah, work-to-rule, the way I understand it is, we are given an operating instruction sheet, we call em OISs at Ford. Other plants or GM and Chrysler call it differently.

But yeah, I mean, you work to exactly what your instruction sheet says, which are essentially made by an engineer. and you work at a normal pace while working to the rule, to the exact instructions. Part of that is also a job safety assessment. They call them JSA’s at Ford.

So, if you’re not working-to-rule with that, if you put your safety glasses on your head, but you’re working-to-rule at the same time, you’re going to get disciplined for safety. So that’s going to be like a huge [thing] if it’s just one person doing it.

On the line, it can create a lot of issues, so there has to be a lot of solidarity and a lot of teamwork too, and it’s also something we need to start doing just to make sure that our jobs aren’t overloaded in the plant, by working-to-rule. Because anyone that’s going above and beyond, that’s just more favors to the company and then they end up adding more work because you’re getting it done faster than the previous worker, that type of thing.

So, I mean, it’s something that has to be in practice and educated to the membership. And it’s kind of been lost since Tier 2 has been introduced into the contracts in 2007. It kind of got lost there because of that division and the recession and everything.

I only have 11 years in, so I hired in afterwards, but from what I’ve been told in the past, and my father [has worked] at Ford for about 30 years now, there used to be a lot of militancy on the shop floor and that’s kind of been lost over these two-tier, divide and conquer contracts we’ve had. 

Teddy Ostrow: Right. And it seems like you guys are sort of like on the mission right now to sort of build that back up. And especially through your caucus, that seems to be the case. But just to clarify something for folks who may not quite understand the logical connection here. Working-to-rule is important because oftentimes, at all of our jobs, in order to do the job, you have to kind of not work-to-rule, go above and beyond, just to get it done.

So when you work-to-rule, it actually can be an effective slowdown for the company and that’s contributing to the economic damage to the company. Did I get that right? 

Chris Budnick: Yeah. That sounds about right. And I’m still being educated on it myself and I’ve never really been able to experience it too much.

I mean, I sure as hell threatened it to a degree, in a different context. But yeah.

Teddy Ostrow: I can imagine you have, however, on the other end, been asked to perform not to rule, been to do more than what’s, I guess, contractually, or, you know, technically instructed of you. Yeah. Lisa, did you want to speak on this as well? This sort of non strikers participating in the Stand-Ups? 

Lisa Xu: Yeah, so we’ve covered kind of the range of activity from sort of stuff you would see and contract campaigns that other unions have run, like the practice pickets, the red shirt Wednesdays, the 10 minute meetings.

But this is stuff the UAW has not done in, I’m not sure anyone knows how many years, so that on its own is very cool. And then, all the work-to-rule stuff we discussed. So, if people want to hear more examples, they should read this article that my coworker Keith Brower Brown, who’s also a former UAW member published in Labor Notes, and, there are a lot more examples in there about how you don’t always have to make it easier for the boss, right? Not doing favors for the boss. One thing you mentioned, Teddy, is Shawn Fain is asking workers to do this and it’s put more pressure on the companies now for sure. But I think like the strike, it’s also about rebuilding the life of the union on the shop floor, that culture of militancy and organization that Chris mentioned that’s been lost, to, so to see that happening across all the plants, whether or not they’re on strike is just really amazing. And I definitely wish, more of the media was covering it as well. And it’s being supported by UAWD, so that’s another important thing to know as well.

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Teddy Ostrow: People should definitely go read that article because I mean, some of them are sort of support of the workers, and I kind of laughed at, like, the fact that some folks, I’m forgetting exactly where it was, but they use bikes in order to traverse the plant because these are big facilities, right? And you need to get somewhere quickly. You’d hop on a bicycle. There’s no contractual requirement to do your job faster, so folks are just walking instead, adding 15 minutes to this process that would otherwise go faster.

And so I think that was a pretty funny, but also really wonderful example of this sort of, you know, Hey, we’re not going to make this easy for you guys, even though we’re not striking right now.” So moving on, I know there isn’t that much information about this right now, but there’s really no way we can’t touch on what appears to be the biggest concession by a Big Three automaker to date, and that is GM’s promise to fold in their battery plants, their electric battery plants into the UAW’s master contract with the company. Listeners probably have heard about this potentially, help us understand why this is being heralded as such an enormous breakthrough, what does this mean for the workers, for the union, the industry? 

Lisa Xu: Yeah, so like you said, I don’t think we have many more details than what you described but the reason why this is significant is because GM and Stellantis and Ford formed these joint ventures with non union companies to produce batteries in the U.S., and they did that specifically to find this legal loophole through which they wouldn’t have to be covered by the UAW’s master agreement with the three companies. So for GM now to fold and say, The thing we told you was absolutely not possible, it’s possible now that you’re threatening to strike us,” it’s pretty amazing. So previously, with the battery plants not being under the master agreement, what that means is that the UAW has to individually unionize each plant. It has to go in and hold union elections, one by one and then bargain contracts one by one.

So that severely just disadvantages workers at those plants. So now that they’re under the master agreement, not that we have the full details yet, I think, but they’re going to be subject to the same bargaining that the workers, and the rest of the Big Three are under. And then one other thing I want to mention, there has been some back and forth as to how labor intensive is the production relative to traditional internal combustion engine production? I think what many of us previously thought was that it was about, I think, 40 percent less labor intensive or more.

So now there’s more research showing that actually when you factor in battery production in addition to just, you know, powertrain assembly, which is less labor intensive, EV production as a whole may not require less labor. So, to be able to bring this more labor intensive battery production under the Big Three master agreement is a huge deal and it’s going to put pressure on Ford and Stellantis to do the same and hopefully, raise wages and improve working conditions for battery workers outside of GM as well.

And to cite more Labor Notes reporting, my colleague, Luis Feliz Leon has written a lot about working conditions in these battery plants and these workers are working with dangerous chemicals. I think OSHA is fining GM’s Ultium plant, now, hundreds of thousands of dollars just because they were non union plants, they didn’t previously have the same protections as the union plant.

So yeah, so this is a big deal.

Teddy Ostrow: Chris, do you want to talk about this as well? 

Chris Budnick: Yeah, it is a big deal. You know, it actually reminded me of helping Shawn Fain campaign for president. We did a little road trip down there to a Spring Hill, Tennessee, Local 1853, GM plant.

And there’s all team plants being built, like different buildings, like all around the entire campus. There’s a lot of GMCH workers there in the complex and just hearing it, hearing from members that are, you know, in progression or full on legacy and just hearing how just legally divided they are, it’s just like, man, we have a lot of work to do, so hearing GM promise to fold in its electric vehicle plants into the master contract is huge.

It’s absolutely huge. Now that they’ve done it, it’s like, well, Stellantis and Ford do it as well because I can tell you from Ford’s end of things, we have a battery plant being built as we speak and, about an hour South of Louisville and then we also have the Blue Oval City in Tennessee, that is going to be the next generation electric truck. And it’s going to be really huge. Hopefully, I think it’s important that we follow suit. We have no choice, but to. What I’m trying to say is that these companies are going full EVs. They’re making promises to the government, to some degree, they want to be fully electric by 2035 and they keep changing like the year 2030, 2035, whatever the deal is. So, I mean, there’s a lot of folks in my plant that are like, why is this important? Why are EVs so important? And it’s like, well. You know, if Ford has their name on it, that’s our work.

That’s our work, and we shouldn’t let it just go to some folks at a very low wage. We need a just transition. You know, it freaked me out seeing that research done. I think it was back in 2018 about EVs saying that the amount of labor needed for EVs is about 25, 30 percent less.

And, thank you, Lisa, for putting out that there’s been new studies done, that it might take more. I haven’t read into that. It is just so important to make sure that the Big Three and the UAW come together on that and get all the plants under our master agreement. So we can continue mainly for a just transition and as Shawn Fain says, for social justice and economic justice. 

Thank goodness we have the leadership in the UAW to do it. 

Teddy Ostrow: Right. Thanks for that. 

And I do recommend to people that they go and read that In These Times article, a really in depth article by Lisa’s colleague, Luis Feliz Leon, explaining the honestly, horrific conditions, these chemical spills and explosions. He digs into some police reports that I think hadn’t been covered before.

So it’s a great piece. And at your company, Chris, I wanted also to mention that up until this moment, there, the means through which it seemed the UAW was trying to sort of push up against this turn among the Big Three to the EVs and to try to sort of use that turn to undermine your guys’s hard fought contracts and standards was to give the right to strike over plant closures to the workers, which is something that Ford actually gave up, as I understand it, in negotiations so far that if they are going to close these plants and then go off to a less friendly union state or even to Mexico to open up some of these EV plants, no, we’re going to strike over it. Give that ultimate leverage that you guys are using right now across the country. And I think that’s a pretty big win in itself as well at Ford. But to end, I’d like to ask you both to take stock of what’s happened over the course of this strike so far, you know, the strike isn’t over, obviously.

It may be several weeks, but who knows? We’ll see, feel free to talk about what’s already been done, but also beyond what is contractual, cause I think I’m talking a little bit more broadly. For one, and I hope that we have already seen a sort of showcasing for the legitimacy of the kind of militant unionism that you guys at UAWD have fought for, this sort of class warfare orientation, perhaps, that is required of workers to win what they deserve, and I think that’s hugely important for the entire labor movement. So please, take this wherever you want to take it, but how are you measuring the success or failure of this strike so far, what has been won already, what is yet to be achieved?

But ultimately, the question is, what can we already say about the UAW’s historic standup strike? 

Class warfare has been going on for a long time.

Lisa Xu: Well, first I think, Chris and I organized together in UAWD for a few years before this. I don’t know what you think, Chris, but this has exceeded my wildest imagining for how much we, the reform movement, would be able to accomplish in just, you know, a couple of years.

I think first, being able to elect the whole slate that we ran, the slate that Shawn headed up and then seeing just what a drastic I mean, still, you know, incomplete, but so far, what a new president and leadership has been able to accomplish. So, I think just the story of that is very important, and I hope that inspires workers organizing to reform their own unions.

Chris Budnick: Can I comment on that Lisa? It’s wonderful. And you’ve done absolutely amazing work with us and we sure do miss you. We really do. But, yeah, I mean, I just wanted to point something out and I’ll let you finish your thoughts. But, I just want to point out that, you know, it’s the kind of goal of reform in my mind, I guess my personal opinion was to do a top down approach, and yeah, and it is absolutely crazy that we were able to achieve that as UAW members and supporters to get that done, which we, you know, for the most part got, we started to reform it and obviously we’re seeing the great work that’s coming out of it. The great ideas. But now, it’s a bottom up approach at this point. Now that we have a good start of, we have good leadership at the top to encourage us and engage us and educate us to do so, and from the bottom up and that’s where all this building militancy in the union, to constantly fight a lot harder with these companies and the hope is that it’s going to really build our union and the labor movement to heights we’ve never seen before. And let’s do it! Let’s go. So, thank you for mentioning that Lisa. I’ll let you continue. 

Lisa Xu: Oh, yeah. No, thank you for mentioning that. I think you’re right. I think what we’re seeing the UAW is, we’re seeing sort of some change at the top that is sparking the change at the bottom, which is really the change that we really need to sustain reform and this struggle going forward. And, you know, Teddy, I think you mentioned class warfare. Well, class warfare has been going on for a long time. It’s just that the working class needs to waken to the fact that capital has been waging class warfare against the working class for decades and has sort of quelled a lot of the militancy and the ability to fight back. 

I think what’s been so amazing is seeing everyone, including workers around the world kind of taking note of what’s happening in the UAW and seeing such an important historical union, kind of sees the reins and says, this is not a one sided class struggle.

That for me has just been,even though I was a part of it from the inside and now looking at it a little bit more from the outside at Labor Notes. It’s just amazing to see, honestly, surreal. I just can’t emphasize that because it’s been such a long time coming.

I think so much is happening so quickly that I’ve been like, just truly very inspired watching all the workers in the strike and also the way Shawn Fain has been leading the fight. So, yeah, those are just some of my own personal feelings about it.

Chris Budnick: Yeah, it’s been a rush and I know you probably feel the same way, Lisa, sometimes it’s just like after every type of campaign, you think that you can take a little break and then you can’t, you don’t get a break. 

No, it’s a never ending fight, and I always believe in having good balance and everything and things have been out of balance, over the decades, the corporations have really built power over the workers and it’s time for us to fight back and, and have the leadership engage it, and educate us and get us where we need to be.

Because that is just union members, ourselves. We need to have workers join a union, any workers out there that are non union. In the union, you have a say, and it takes time to organize and build that militancy, but we’ll get there, you know, even in the UAW, very militant, then kind of lost it there for a little bit and now we’re back, or we’re getting back and it’s going to be a constant struggle, a constant fight, and it’s going to be never ending. I kind of like where we’re going here. I just wanted to mention some of the gains, you know, 

Teddy Ostrow: Yeah, if you want to talk about the concrete wins as well?

Chris Budnick: Yeah. COLA. COLA is a good topic because there’s a lot of folks that have said COLA’s gone. It’s gone forever. We’re never getting it back. And the funny thing is it just took one plant, the Bronco and the Ford Ranger plant at Ford for Ford to fold and give us back COLA.

That’s huge, and not to mention they’re going to go by the 2007 COLA language. That’s not going to be some new, improved type of language that’s going to basically be half COLA or Coke Zero, as Shawn Fain called it. 

We talked about EVs and how we want any EVs that the companies are making, that it’s under our master agreement, that’s obviously a huge thing, but there’s also, as a Tier 2, I don’t have a pension, a defined pension or healthcare when I retire.

Chris Budnick: So, for a lot of years, I’m not good on all that financial stuff, but I’m also not going to retire for another 25 years. So, I mean, it’s important to me to have a good retirement and, but I also saw my 401k drop like 40 grand in 2021. I’ve only gotten half of that back since, so things can happen with the 401k that wouldn’t happen with a pension because it’s a guaranteed amount of money. Those are things that are very important, but also, getting retirees a raise, they need a raise, some type of COLA to keep up with inflation. So I think it’s 2003, 2004 was the last time they got a raise.

Hell, that’s almost 20 years. Retirees have gone without a raise and they need a raise not to mention legacy, union family that are going to be going out and retiring, it’d be nice if they’re caught up with the times and inflation and all that stuff. I want to make this very clear what I’m expecting on a wage increase, because COLA was suspended back in 2009, and these are basically my calculations, but we need a 20% upfront increase on wages just to catch up to where we would be if we had COLA over the last 14 years, so a 20 percent increase and then after that, they can give us, I mean, we got COLA back, so let’s get some raises to get us above the standard, so we can set that standard for other workers across the country, union or not.

That’s one thing I wanted to really mention and say clearly. 10 percent up front is not good enough. It’s not even close to where we should be, we need at least 20.

Teddy Ostrow: Well, thank you for kind of going through some of what was won, but also what is still obviously left on the table. There appears to be a lot left on the table, but there’s also a lot more of you guys who aren’t out on strike yet, technically. So, you know, given the trend of these strikes, given the successes so far, it’s not unlikely that you guys will be able to win a lot more. I appreciate you both going into sort of what was more broadly one so far and your point, Chris, about, you know, winning the top down, but now the fight begins really, on the bottom up and we’ve been hearing little hints of that in trying to build the culture of work-to-rule actions or practice pickets or rallies because, this is something we’ve emphasized on this show before, this is the beginning of a reform in the UAW, to the militancy that made your union so historic, and you’re right, the fight never ends. 

Additional information

Hosted by Teddy Ostrow

Edited by Teddy Ostrow

Produced by NYGP & Ruby Walsh, in partnership with In These Times & The Real News

Music by Casey Gallagher

Cover art by Devlin Claro Resetar

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Hear Teddy talk about the UAW strike on The Response podcast.

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Teddy Ostrow is a journalist from Brooklyn covering labor and economics. He is the host of The Upsurge podcast and his work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @TeddyOstrow.

Ruby Walsh is an audio producer from Brooklyn. She is a co-producer of The Upsurge podcast and a development producer for Giant Grin LLC. Formerly, she was the associate producer of Moyers on Democracy and wrote for Bill​Moy​ers​.com.

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