Auto Worker Activists Regroup, Prepare to Fight Anew

After a brutal year where auto workers were hammered by big concessions and blame for the industry's crisis, activists are regrouping to put heat on their union. A contingent demonstrated at the Detroit Auto Show recently. Photo: Aaron Petcoff.

“A job is a right, we’re going to fight, fight, fight!” The chant filled the cavernous hotel conference room with anger and enthusiasm as the largest rank-and-file auto worker meeting in many years came to a close. Nearly 100 retired and active workers from the Big 3 and a dozen parts suppliers met outside of Detroit last weekend to discuss strategies for rank-and-file organizing after months of concessions and plant closings agreed to by the UAW.

It’s been a grueling year for auto activists: their industry was pulled back from the brink by a government bailout—but with big costs to workers, who swallowed wage and benefit cuts and layoffs in vote-yes-or-lose-your-job contracts, along with a heavy dose of blame for the industry’s problems.

But UAW troublemakers notched a stunning victory just months later—and are eager to build on their momentum. Despite arm-twisting by UAW officials, rank and filers led a successful “vote no” campaign at profitable Ford, defeating UAW-approved contract concessions in November. In an atmosphere of intense pressure to hack away at job standards in the auto industry, how did Ford workers defeat an agreement delivered by their top officials?

In nearly every plant that voted down the contract, rank and filers—some of whom had never written an opposition leaflet—circulated simple “vote no” messages to their co-workers. Retirees remained active and called down their lists. Local officials in some plants held rallies and mobilized against the deal. One participant noted that in the past, UAW officials had heavily promoted their agreements, but were quieter this time around. Some felt the victory was a spontaneous reaction to being asked so soon for more concessions after being promised that concessions in previous years would keep them safe for awhile. It was a simple matter of promises not being kept.

Workers attended from the Twin Cities, Kansas City, Toledo and from all the auto hotbeds in Michigan: Saginaw, Flint, Jackson, Grand Rapids, and metro Detroit. A Canadian auto worker came to document the meeting and bring information back to fellow CAW activists.

Long-time auto dissidents noted there were more local officers and younger members in the room than at meetings in recent years. Younger members learned about the 30-history of UAW concessions and rank-and-file fight backs from former UAW regional staff Jerry Tucker—a staple of the mid-‘90s UAW rank-and-file caucus New Directions.



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Participants used the victory at Ford to talk strategies for rank and filers concerned about the future of the UAW. Dianne Feeley, a retiree from American Axle and a meeting organizer, said that small-group meetings by industry were the most helpful to workers trying to move from a shared sense of crisis to positive steps forward.

The activists had a number of ideas to challenge concessions trends and put heat on the union to fight. Most focused on sending delegates to the UAW Constitutional Convention in June and educating each other on how to pass resolutions. Others emphasized the need to go back to the shop floor and organize groups at home before attempting to challenge the union’s top ranks.

The group, while not an official caucus or organization, decided to hold more face-to-face meetings, including at the Labor Notes Conference April 23-25 in Detroit.

To get involved in rank-and-file auto worker organizing, contact organizers from one of the host groups:,,,

Register for the conference now at or contact tiffany [at] labornotes [dot] org.

Tiffany Ten Eyck is a former staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.