When union contracts at all three Detroit-based automobile and pickup truck manufacturers expired at midnight on September 14, the United Auto Workers called strategic strikes at three carefully selected assembly plants, one operated by each of the companies. The selective strikes, which leave the majority of auto industry production by the three domestic companies still operating at least temporarily, bears an odd resemblance to the military tactic of selective raids often used by insurgent armies against a numerically superior and entrenched adversary.
Many features of this negotiation between the UAW and the auto manufacturers are unique. The UAW has not previously engaged in strikes against all three Detroit-based companies at the same time and has not previously engaged in less than full-company walkouts. But the issues at stake are also unprecedented, with the UAW demanding a 40% wage increase over three years, a 32 hour work week, and a return to defined benefit pension plans, among other issues. The UAW has rejected 15% and 9/10% wage raise offers from the manufacturers, citing "record profits" in the auto industry. The selective strikes avoid the considerable drain on the UAW's $825 million strike pay fund that full-company strikes of the 146,000 workers would entail.
With the auto manufacturers still producing their most profitable vehicles and facing the economically ruinous current demands of the UAW, and most of the UAW members still working while strikers are able draw some pay from the union for many weeks, the stage may be set for a long siege rather than a quick resolution of the expired union contracts.
Unions are enjoying a resurgence in representation elections and support from a favorable administration and much of Congress. Perhaps the economic battle will also be partly fought in the political arena as well as on the picket lines and in the news media.