Since the start of the pandemic, labor unions have enjoyed something of a renaissance. They have made inroads into previously nonunion companies like Starbucks and Amazon, and won unusually strong contracts for hundreds of thousands of workers. Last year, public approval for unions reached its highest level since the Lyndon Johnson presidency.
What unions haven’t had during that stretch is a true gut-check moment on a national scale. Strikes by railroad workers and UPS employees, which had the potential to rattle the U.S. economy, were averted at the last minute. The fallout from the continuing writers’ and actors’ strikes has been heavily concentrated in Southern California.
The strike by the United Automobile Workers, whose members walked off the job at three plants on Friday, is shaping up to be such a test. A contract with substantial wage increases and other concessions from the three automakers could announce organized labor as an economic force to be reckoned with and accelerate a recent wave of organizing.
But there are also real pitfalls. A prolonged strike could undermine the three established U.S. automakers — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, Jeep and Ram — and send the politically crucial Midwest into recession. If the union is seen as overreaching, or if it settles for a weak deal after a costly stoppage, public support could sour.
“Right now, unions are cool,” said Michael Lotito, a lawyer at Littler Mendelson, a firm representing management.
“But unions have a risk of not being very cool if you have five-month strike in L.A and an X-month strike in how many other states,” he added.
If the stakes seem high for the U.A.W., that’s partly because the union’s new president, Shawn Fain, has gone out of his way to elevate them. During frequent video meetings with members before the strike, Mr. Fain has portrayed the negotiations as a broader struggle pitting ordinary workers against corporate titans.
“I know that we’re on the right side in this battle,” he said in a recent video appearance. “It’s a battle of the working class against the rich, the haves versus the have-nots, the billionaire class against everybody else.”
Mr. Fain’s framing of the contract campaign in class terms appears to be resonating with his members, thousands of whom have watched the online sessions.
Shunte Sanders-Beasley, a U.A.W. member in Michigan who started working at a Chrysler plant in Indiana in 1999, said she saw the fight similarly.
“If you follow history, autoworkers tend to set the tone,” said Ms. Sanders-Beasley, who has served as vice president of her local and backed Mr. Fain’s campaign for the union’s presidency last year. “If we can win back some of the concessions we took, I’m hoping that it’ll be a trickle-down effect.”
A successful autoworker strike in 1937, which led G.M. to recognize the U.A.W. for the first time, helped set in motion a wave of union organizing across a variety of industries like steel, oil, textiles and newspapers over the next few years.
Labor activists agreed that the current strike could also reverberate across other industries, where workers appear to be paying close attention to the labor actions of the past year. “In organizing meetings, they say, ‘If they can do it, we can do it,’” said Jaz Brisack, an organizer with Workers United who had played a key role in the Starbucks campaign.
But the flip side is that the strike could inflict collateral damage that creates frustration and hardship among tens of thousands of nonunion workers and their communities.
“The small and medium-sized manufacturers across the country that make up the automotive sector’s integrated supply chain will feel the brunt of this work stoppage, whether they are a union shop or not,” Jay Timmons, the chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement Friday.
Higher wages and gains for rank-and-file workers can be good for the economy. But some argue that Mr. Fain’s and other labor leaders’ aggressive demands could discourage businesses from investing in the United States or render them uncompetitive with foreign rivals.
“Mr. Fain has to think about this, too — the long-term financial viability of these three companies,” said John Drake, vice president of transportation, infrastructure and supply chain policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Even those who welcome the union’s aggressive stance say it is fraught with risk. Gene Bruskin, a longtime union official who helped workers at a Smithfield meat-processing plant in North Carolina achieve, in 2008, one of the biggest organizing victories in decades, said a long strike could disillusion workers if the union came up short on key demands.
“If the U.A.W. fails to make any significant gains, particularly on the two-tier stuff, their future could be seriously harmed,” said Mr. Bruskin, referring to a system in which newer workers are paid far less than veteran workers who perform similar jobs.
Mr. Bruskin also worried that the union could effectively win the battle and lose the war if the auto companies respond by shifting more production to Mexico, where they already have a significant presence.
The tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies for domestic production of electric vehicles that President Biden has helped secure should limit that shift and help keep manufacturing jobs at home. Many automakers are already locating new plants in the United States to take advantage of the funds.
Still, Willy Shih, an expert on manufacturing at Harvard Business School, said the automakers could adjust their operations in ways that undercut the U.A.W. while continuing to produce cars domestically. Automation is one option, he said, as is locating new plants in lightly unionized Southern states.
The Detroit automakers have created joint ventures with foreign battery makers outside the reach of the U.A.W.’s national contracts and have sought to locate some of those plants in states like Tennessee and Kentucky. The union is seeking to bring workers at those plants up to the same pay and labor standards that direct employees of the Big Three enjoy, but it has not succeeded so far.
Given those threats, the union may feel justified in taking a more ambitious posture toward the automakers. The primary check on shifting work to other states will be the U.A.W.’s ability to organize new plants, especially in the South, where it has struggled to gain traction for years. Experts argued that the union would likely increase its chances of attracting members there if it could point to large concrete gains.
“The answer is winning a strong contact here and using it to organize huge groups of autoworkers who are currently nonunion,” said Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies labor.
And there are other ways in which being too cautious may be a bigger risk to the union than being too aggressive. Organizers point out that workers are often demoralized when union leaders talk tough and then quickly settle for a subpar deal.
Critics of the previous U.A.W. administration accused it of doing just that before Mr. Fain took over this year. “We’d be trying to make sense of how certain things passed in the first place,” Shana Shaw, another longtime U.A.W. member who backed Mr. Fain, said of the concessionary contracts autoworkers were asked to accept over the years.
Even Mr. Fain’s habit of framing the fight in broad class terms may prove to be a strategic advantage. A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of the public backed the autoworkers in the showdown, compared with 19 percent who were more sympathetic to the companies.
The widespread public support suggests that the autoworkers may be operating in a different context from workers in another strike that famously contributed to a loss of power for labor: air traffic controllers’ unsuccessful fight against the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, after which private-sector employers appeared to become more comfortable firing and replacing striking employees.
Dr. Eidlin said that while the air traffic controllers failed to court allies in the labor movement, “the fact that Fain and the U.A.W. are messaging more broadly, really trying to build that broad coalition, speaks to the possibility of a different outcome.”