May 20, 2024

From the Democratic Party to “left” media like The Guardian, UAW chief Shawn Fain is the newly-anointed labor leader. When President Biden gave his State of the Union address on March 7, he saluted Fain in the gallery. The Guardian news site published a glorifying interview on April 13, in which Fain made two points that do not square with the facts.

First, “Fain objects strongly to those who would place the blame for rising car prices on union contracts. ‘Five to 7% of the cost of a car is labor. [Carmakers] could give us everything they gave us in that contract and not raise the price of cars a penny and still make massive profits.’”

It’s just not true. Take Ford’s 2023 financials, for example. Revenue was $176.2 billion. Ford buys machinery, parts, and subassemblies from other capitalists, which must be included in the price of a car. Ford’s operating income (after depreciation but before interest and taxes) was $11.8 billion, for a profit rate of 6.7%. If Ford’s own labor cost is somewhere between 5% and 7% of sales, every dollar paid in wages is about a dollar less in profits. The class struggle at the point of production is real.

As for rising car prices, Ford’s profit rate of 6.7% was up from 6.1% in 2022 and 5.4% in 2021.

When Fain says Ford could raise wages substantially and not raise the price of cars a penny, he cultivates the illusion that if only Ford bosses were not so mean-spirited, everyone could be happy. Fain will not tell workers that the economic fight is part of an irreconcilable contradiction between two classes.

Share the Profits vs Abolish the Profit System

Talking to The Guardian, Fain also said, “If Volkswagen workers had Ford’s [new] agreement, they would have got $23,000 profit-sharing checks this year. Instead, they got zero.” Is that how we want our income, “sharing” the profits? Should the workers at Ford be better or worse off each year in comparison with their class brothers at Volkswagen, GM, Toyota, and Stellantis?

President Fain knows how to look militant. He had the nerve to invoke the great Flint sit-down strike of 1937 in a slick infomercial. But when it came to the contract battle last year, the UAW struck plants of different auto corporations one after another. Fain did not pull out all the workers and shut down production. Indeed, GM reported stronger than forecast profits for the quarter, despite being hit by the strike during the last two weeks of the period. The UAW claimed that its strategy of selective strikes “keeps the companies guessing.” This is not true. The union admits that for the first four weeks of the six-week strike, “Expansions of the strike occurred at a deadline set in advance by the union” [emphasis added]. Given advance notice, the bosses could work around the impact of a walkout at one factory.

Since the contract fight, autoworkers have learned that they still have to worry about layoffs and transfers. Late in March, Ford downsized its Rouge electric vehicle plant, which built the Lightning model of the iconic Ford F-150 pickup truck. One-third of the 2,100 workers were shifted to a plant in Wayne, Michigan. Another third were pushed into taking a $50,000 retirement package.

Jacobin, a website that is practically an arm of the Democratic Socialists of America, quoted a UAW official who boasted just after the 2023 strike that “Eight months ago, Stellantis idled Belvidere Assembly Plant, putting 1,200 of our members on the street. From the strength of our strike, we are bringing back those jobs and more.” He spoke too soon. Last month, Stellantis terminated 2,000 temporary workers plus 400 salaried workers. Fain criticized the decision as “about corporate greed.” It is about much more than that. Capitalism grinds on, chewing up workers first here and then there. Job security, a career developing throughout one’s working years, and full employment all the time for everyone—these things are impossible in a capitalist economy. They are elementary in a socialist-communist society. Communist workers are dedicated to organizing, educating, and preparing for the revolutionary change.

Shawn Fain, Joe Biden, The Guardian, and Jacobin sell a mirage of humanized capitalism to the working class. The Shawn Fain who says wage increases can be easy for the bosses, the Shawn Fain who dangles profit-sharing instead of focusing on solid wage hikes and job security—he teaches us by negation. To be sure, Fain will tell you that it takes a fight to win something: he is a practitioner of feisty class collaboration. We are not. We fight every class battle with the goal of winning the class war.

Charles Andrews is the author of The Hollow Colossus.