Since the strike of roughly 48,000 UAW-represented General Motors workers began on Sept. 16, groups of Wayne State students have been organizing in their free time between classes to donate supplies, join picket lines and offer support in whatever ways they can.
Many of the students aiding the strike are members of the student organization Young Democratic Socialists of America, or YDSA, a campus-oriented affiliate of the Detroit chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Democratic Socialism is a political philosophy that — while not a new movement in American politics — has largely existed on the political periphery, according to a study done by sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset.
That was until the 2016 democratic presidential primary run of Bernie Sanders, a self-identified Democratic Socialist, who helped boost the movement into the mainstream.
Since then, Democratic Socialism has gone through a revival in the United States, with the political organization surpassing 40,000 members in 2018, according to The Hill.
New to campus, WSU’s YDSA chapter began in the summer of 2019, according to Kylee Weiss and Daniel Weed, two student members of YDSA.
“We work with local chapters but we also want to advocate for the needs that are most pressing for students here at Wayne,” Weiss said. “Because GM has a history of screwing over workers, we felt it was important to support worker control of decisions over the company.”
YDSA sees the ongoing GM strike as an opportunity, not just to promote their own politics, but to help bolster an ailing labor movement in the United States that has been on the decline over the past several decades, Weed and Weiss said.
“I think this strike occurs at a time when labor is at a relatively low point in its general power, and its power in the auto industry is less than it has been historically,” Marick Masters, the director of labor studies and a professor of business at WSU, said.
Harrison Cole, a YDSA member and criminal justice major at WSU, comes from several generations of UAW members who have worked at various GM plants and said he brings canned food to UAW union halls to help support workers and their families.
“Since they’re only making something like $250 a week, and many of them have bills and other things that are much higher than that, they usually make a lot more money. A lot of them have trouble affording food while they’re on strike,” Cole said. “There are ways you can show support besides just showing up on the picket line.”
The UAW is looking to renegotiate concessions it made to help GM recover from its bankruptcy a decade ago, Masters said. These include issues around the two-tier system of employee wages and benefits, where newer employees receive less compensation than those that have been at the company for longer, as well as GM’s reliance on temporary workers.
“The two-tier system was negotiated, I believe, in 2007, and it was absolutely necessary to save the auto industry,” Masters said. “In 2015 they negotiated a progression phase where it takes eight years to get from when you’re first hired in the lower tier to the first tier. And obviously, the Union would like to expedite that.
“Another issue is temporary workers, the kind of benefits and profit-sharing they receive and whether or not there is a path for them to become permanent workers, as opposed to staying on a temporary status for what seems or could be an indefinite period of time,” Masters said.
Cole said he believes the use of temporary workers is a way for GM to leverage more benefits from their full-time employees and is unfair to the temporary workers themselves.
“There are temps that have been there five or six years that are still temporary workers,” Cole said. “They only get three days off a year and can be fired at will. On top of that, they only get a very basic healthcare package.”
Weed said he believes it’s important for people to understand the connection between widening economic inequality and the decline in union power.
“I think it’s important to remember that since we bailed them out during the recession, over the last several years GM has been making record profits. What we’ve seen recently is that while these companies are making massive profits, they proceed to enact mass layoffs and plant closures, not mass hiring or any kind of pay raises,” Weed said. “They cut costs by cutting labor and economically displace more and more people as a result.”
The growing gap between rich and poor should concern everyone, Masters said.
“I think that the potential for economic and political discontent and turbulence rises if we continue down the path where just a few are benefiting while the vast many are not,” Masters said. “I don’t think that kind of society is sustainable in a peaceful basis forever, particularly if the trends continue.”
Though Masters believes the economic realities for both sides will likely result in trade-offs between the UAW and GM, and some form of the tier system or the use of temporary workers may remain in place, he said the strike will still have a lasting effect for the perception of collective bargaining power.
“It testifies to the power that workers can have collectively,” Masters said. “Individual worker’s powers are really his or her ability to walk away from an organization and if the company is afraid of losing that person they might make some effort to keep them by say raising the pay for that person or whatever other combination is necessary.
“But a lot of people don’t have that kind of individual negotiating power and so are at the mercy of management,” Masters said. “Strikes like this show what you can do when you have collective representation. With a union, you have more alternatives to bring to bear to try and improve your working conditions.”
For YDSA members, collective action is the key to improving more than just working conditions.
“Whether it’s climate change or labor issues like GM workers are facing, or even issues we face here at Wayne — it sometimes feels like, how can we change things that seem so huge?” Weed said. “One person alone might not be able to do something, but a lot of people united together in a common cause can really make a major change in how things are run.”
Sean Taormina is the features editor at The South End. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All pictures courtesy of Sean Taormina.