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The UAW’s Tesla drive is showing the way forward for US unions: go big or go extinct

<span>Photograph: John J Kim/AP</span>
Photograph: John J Kim/AP

Imagine that you live on an island. Over time, you realize that the water around you is rising. The only way to avoid being inundated is to build a 10ft-high wall. That’s a big project. It will take uncommon levels of resources and cooperation. Everyone will have to set aside their differences and work together – fast. It won’t be easy. But the alternative is destruction.

That sounds like a lot of work, though. And the water isn’t here yet. So you build a 1ft-high wall, and keep a positive attitude. Consequently, you drown.

This is a pretty accurate metaphor for the state of the United States’ labor unions. For decades, under relentless attack from corporate interests and their political allies, unions have watched their membership decline. In the mid-20th century, one in three American workers was a union member; today, only one in 10 is. Economic inequality has shot up as the power of workers has fallen. With rare exceptions, each passing year shows another small loss for union density.

It does not take a genius to see that this trend offers only two possible outcomes: either unions will rouse themselves out of their disaffected stupor, organize millions of new workers and turn around their decline; or they will descend into irrelevance. The labor movement has been losing the class war for a painfully long time. What is needed to change that awful fact is, first of all, ambition.

This week brought wonderful news on that front. The United Auto Workers (UAW), fresh off a historic, victorious strike against the Big Three automakers, announced plans to unionize not just one, not two, but more than a dozen of the remaining non-union auto companies in the US. Tesla, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen – essentially all of them. After the attractive contracts won in the strikes brought a flood of interest from workers across the country, the union has decided to seize the moment. The UAW is aiming to be exactly where a strong union needs to be: everywhere.

Is this plan bold? Yes. Will it be difficult? Yes. Are they in for years-long fights against enormous multinational corporations backed by hostile state governments? Yes. But the great insight that the UAW is showing here is this: the fact that facing down an existential threat will be hard doesn’t matter. If the auto workers’ union is not capable of organizing foreign companies’ auto plants in hostile southern states, its power will die; and if it is not capable of organizing workers at rich and growing and staunchly anti-union companies like Tesla, its power will die.

So the choices are to do those things, or die. Despite the difficulty of the task, the choice, when presented like that, is very easy.

The newly aggressive posture of the UAW – a product of the reform-minded president Shawn Fain, who took over the union just last March and has already distinguished himself as a role model for the entire labor movement – sets up the potential for an incredibly entertaining soap opera starring the richest childlike mogul on earth. Elon Musk prides himself on Tesla’s non-union status; by “prides himself”, I mean “has been found guilty of illegal union-busting in federal court”. Despite the fact that he has demonstrably taken steps to crush past attempts by his workers to organize, Musk said in an interview this week: “There are many times when I’ve said, ‘Can’t we just hold a union vote? But apparently a company is not allowed to hold a union vote’.”

If you had assumed that a man worth $245bn would be able to hire someone to explain to him the most rudimentary aspects of labor law, that assumption was apparently incorrect. It is OK for all of us to feel a bit giddy at the prospect of this fantastically oblivious zillionaire, drunk on undeserved self-confidence, facing off against an experienced, determined union that just got done kicking the ass of his main competitors. Elon Musk, like a champion racehorse that decides to become an accountant, is about to learn that being successful at one thing does not make you good at everything else.

Shawn Fain has shown more determination to save the labor movement than most of this country’s other major unions put together

The UAW, which currently has 400,000 active members, says it is aiming to organize 150,000 more. To put that number in perspective, the entire AFL-CIO – a coalition of 60 unions, many of them larger than the UAW – last year announced a goal of organizing just 1 million new workers in the next 10 years, a number so modest that it would cause union density to continue declining.

In a matter of months, Shawn Fain has shown more determination to save the labor movement than most of this country’s other major unions put together. With its pugnacious strike, its sweeping plan to organize and, last week, its public support for a ceasefire in Gaza, what the UAW is displaying is not only zeal, but an understanding of what unions could be in America, if they put a little effort into it.

Unions can be the hammer that smashes economic inequality. They can be the magic ingredient that pulls together working people of all races and political persuasions and unites them in common cause. They can be every bit as powerful as rich corporations, acting in service of humanity rather than profits. They can be the beating heart at the center of American politics. But they will not be any of those things as long as only one in 10 workers (and falling) are union members. If unions want to get bigger, they need to think bigger.

George HW Bush was memorably derided for his inability to understand “the vision thing” – people could not respect him as a leader because he could not see over the horizon of the now into the wide world of the possible. Organized labor, sadly, has long suffered from the same affliction. Watching the UAW at work now feels like witnessing the rays of a new morning sun after a dark night. Vision is back, baby. Unions are coming not just for the few, but for everyone.

  • Hamilton Nolan is a writer on labor and politics, based in New York City