News & Commentary

September 9, 2023

Swap Agrawal

Swap Agrawal is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s news and commentary, automakers and UAW remain far apart on key issues as the contract deadline approaches; three unions are collaborating in an effort to organize Delta Airlines, and Tesla asks the Fifth Circuit to reverse the NLRB’s ruling that the company’s policy against wearing union t-shirts at work is illegal.

UAW and the Big Three automakers – General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis – remain far apart on key issues as September 14, the date that the existing agreements expire, fast approaches. As Linh reported on Thursday, UAW President Shawn Fain announced that UAW will strike if the companies fail to reach agreement with the union by that deadline. UAW is pushing for a 46% pay raise over four years for its 150,000 workers in the face of soaring company profits and stagnant wages. As Greg reported last week, bargaining has been slow, leading UAW to file a complaint with the NLRB alleging that the companies are not adequately fulfilling their legal obligation to bargain.

On Friday, Stellantis finally presented its first proposal, offering the union a 14.5% wage increase for “most represented employees.” UAW responded by posting a flyer on Twitter stating that Stellantis is “by far the richest” of the Big Three automakers but they “don’t want Stellantis workers to get our fair share.” The flyer also showed that Stellantis’ proposal also did not meet any of UAW’s other key demands, including ending the tiered wage system, restoring pensions and retiree healthcare, increasing retiree pay, reinstituting cost of living adjustments tied to inflation, the right to strike over plant closures, and increased paid time off. Ford and GM offered even lower wage increases on Friday of 9% and 10% respectively. Fain called GM’s offer “insulting.”

The electrification of the auto industry has been a major throughline in these negotiations. Stellantis defended its offer in a letter from its COO Mark Stewart stating that the company is providing “good jobs” while protecting its “ability to continue to compete globally in an industry that is rapidly transitioning to electric vehicles.” While the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) tied subsidies for electrification to domestic manufacturing and prevailing wages, the shift to EVs will also render obsolete the need for engines and transmissions, which account for about half of domestic vehicle manufacturing capacity. Moreover, many of the new EV and battery manufacturing plants announced since the IRA’s passage are being built in right-to-work states, and Tesla, the largest US EV company, has a non-union workforce. These negotiations will help determine the impact of the transition to EVs for US workers.

Three unions – the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), and the Teamsters are teaming up for an innovative campaign to organize 50,000 workers at Delta. The company has long been a target for union organizers. Its workforce is only 20% unionized, compared to an average of 80% at other US airlines. Many airline workers are covered by the National Railway Act, which requires a majority of all employees who perform similar work nationwide at a company to vote for a union, rather than just a majority at a single airport. That means the three unions are organizing Delta employees at 46 locations. “The thing that I’m excited about from Georgia’s perspective is that it’s not just labor who’s been involved,” said Christopher Daniel, a strategic organizer and trainer at the Georgia AFL-CIO. “It’s labor. It’s community. It’s clergy. Because everybody understands . . . the historic significance of Delta having their hub being here in Atlanta and being one of the last vestiges of the unorganized major airline carriers.”

On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit seemed open to reversing the NLRB’s ruling that Tesla violated the rights of its factory employees by preventing them from wearing t-shirts supporting a union campaign. The NLRB ruled last year that Tesla’s policy requiring factory workers to only wear black shirts with Tesla logos was illegal because there were no “special circumstances” warranting restrictions on union attire. However, the Fifth Circuit panel emphasized that Tesla only prohibited t-shirts and not all union insignia. “A sticker says ‘go union,’ ‘union is good’ or whatever. In what way is that an insufficient means of communication?” Circuit Judge Jerry Smith asked Micah Jost, who represented the NLRB. Jost replied that Tesla did not explicitly allow other union apparel to be worn with company t-shirts and that stickers were small and had less of an impact than a union t-shirt.

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