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Striking autoworkers reach tentative deals with all of the big 3 automakers

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

After 6 1/2 weeks, the autoworkers strike appears to be at the finish line. Striking workers have reached a tentative contract with General Motors. That's the last of the big Detroit car companies to settle with the UAW. The union had already made tentative deals with Ford and Chrysler's parent company, Stellantis. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi - good to be with you.

SUMMERS: Hey. So what can you tell us about what's in this agreement?

HORSLEY: We don't know all the specifics of the General Motors deal, but it likely follows the outline set by Ford and Chrysler's parent company. That includes a 25% pay increase over four years, cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, accelerated promotion to the top of the pay scale and improved retirement benefits. From the beginning of the strike, UAW President Shawn Fain has been driving a hard bargain with the carmakers, and Fain said over the weekend it paid off.

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SHAWN FAIN: The stand-up strike will go down in history as an inflection point for our union and for our movement.

HORSLEY: The tentative contract also gives autoworkers the right to strike over plant closings. It calls for the reopening of a shuttered Stellantis plant in Illinois. And the union made progress on organizing workers at battery plants, which will be important as we move to more electric cars.

SUMMERS: OK, we're calling this a tentative contract. So what still has to happen?

HORSLEY: That's right. It still needs approval from the union membership. Shawn Fain is the first UAW president to be elected directly by the members. And he says they're the ultimate decision makers. So this is not a done deal. Earlier this month, in fact, we saw a UAW contract with Mack Truck be rejected by the membership. This agreement, though, seems to have a lot of momentum. Brandon Bell was one of the very first Ford workers to go on strike. He was back on the job today at Ford's Michigan assembly plant, and he says he's excited about the new contract.

BRANDON BELL: It really is life-changing - the pay plus COLA, with the longevity of the contract that will get us over $40 an hour, which is a really good rate, especially coming in at 16.50.

HORSLEY: Now, this will certainly raise the Detroit company's labor costs, which were already significantly higher than their competitors. Ford says the contract would likely add about 850 to $900 to the cost of a car or truck.

SUMMERS: I mean, it seems like we've seen a lot of unions winning big wage gains this year. Is there a common thread to tease out here?

HORSLEY: You're right. There have been some big wins. Teamsters scored a good contract at UPS. Some of the airline pilots have won big wage gains. You know, popular support for unions is about as high as it's been in decades. Harry Katz, who's an expert on labor negotiations at Cornell, says the UAW did have some things working in its favor.

HARRY KATZ: The economy is strong. The companies would have had a lot more to lose if this strike had continued. The union is strong. They can't replace the workers. So they had a lot of bargaining power, and they exercised it.

HORSLEY: That said, the union did not get everything it wanted. For example, it didn't get a return to an old-fashioned defined benefit pension plan. Katz says one of the UAW's big challenges is they just don't have the muscle that they once did. You know, there are a lot of non-union carmakers out there. And even Fords and Chevys now have a lot of parts that are made by non-union workers.

SUMMERS: OK. What can the UAW do about that then?

HORSLEY: Shawn Fain says as soon as this deal is finalized, he wants to focus on organizing at some of those other companies. He said during the strike, workers at Tesla and Toyota and Honda are not the enemy. They're future UAW members. And certainly this new contract might serve as a kind of billboard for the benefits of union membership. But, you know, both labor law and the political climate make it really hard to organize workers, especially in the South, where a lot of those other auto plants are located. So Katz says it is an uphill battle.

KATZ: I don't think they're condemned to fail at that, but past evidence is it's going to be a really profound challenge.

HORSLEY: And, you know, that's an important part of this story. Only about 1 in 10 workers in the U.S. belongs to a union - only about 6% of workers in the private sector. So these big gains that the UAW and other unions have been winning are impressive, but they're not representative of what the typical worker is getting.

SUMMERS: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.