The UAW was a primitive struggle between David and Goliath. It evoked deeply ingrained metaphors: fat, miserly bosses versus noble, underpaid workers.
The final blow is just one swing of the pendulum in a long struggle. For decades, unions have been losing. Membership declined, and support waned.
It took decades for the trade union movement’s brand to recover, but it has. Last August, a Gallup poll showed that 71% of Americans approved of unions, the highest percentage since 1965. The question for the UAW is: How can it expand its economic and cognitive wins to keep momentum going?
On the other hand, how can the auto industry build a narrative around the concessions it has just made? This would begin the process of making the American public – especially younger car buyers of the future – less willing to hate the auto complex.
The road ahead will be difficult. Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with car companies, and those feelings haven’t improved.
Cost is one reason. As analysts note, new cars are for wealthy people — and less affluent consumers have turned to the used car market or don’t own cars. If you can’t afford the industry’s cars, it’s hard to love the industry.
Despite this reality, during the strike, the auto industry’s response was an uninspiring mix of attack (attacking UAW leader Sean Fine for challenging unwritten labor rules) and polemical defense.
Automakers need a jiu-jitsu move
Now that the UAW is on the verge of ratifying the deal, the industry must seize this moment and elevate the settlement into a declaration of how much it respects and honors auto workers — and replace its predictable corporate threats with an unexpected humanitarian response.
Their messages should focus on two main audiences: younger consumers, as well as people who already own their cars. Data indicate that more than half of car owners prefer to buy from the company from which they previously purchased.
To build these relationships, Detroit must praise strikers for doing what they thought was right and standing up for what they believed in — an unexpected but necessary move in jiu-jitsu.
Automakers should also talk proudly about the large wage increases they have given up. “We are proud to support the skilled women and men who build amazing cars here in America.”
Most Americans would be happy to get a raise of this size, and with the right framework, they’ll be happy that UAW members get it. These companies are losing revenue anyway, and have to gain street credibility.
The industry must also remind the American public of the middle class that its companies have built, in partnership with unions, by citing objective third parties.
Naturally, each car company will need to tell this story in its own way, driven by this narrative framework.
Now the union can move forward
During the strike, the UAW fell into their usual trap of corporate greed and non-living wages. Sean Fine likes to wear his “Eat the Rich” T-shirt – but data shows that “support for redistributive policies tends to decline”.
Finn must rise above his opposition and seize this moment to leave the division behind him. This is an opportunity to link the Union’s success at the strategic level to the “Great Rebalancing” process in America. Everywhere you look, power is waning at the top: employees are demanding remote work. Unionizes at Amazon and Starbucks. Hollywood actors go on strike. Kids are suing energy giants. Millions are speaking out for social and climate justice.
The settlements reached with automakers should feed this narrative: “We’ve done our part by standing up to the Big Three, and that’s why more than half of Americans support us. Our country is changing, and the UAW respects the administration for adapting to this new reality.”
In short, position the union as a culture changer. The fight for higher wages, work-life balance, and a shorter workweek isn’t just a fight for auto workers — it’s everyone’s fight, he declared. He reminded people of what history has shown: “When we fight for ourselves, You They are more likely to get what You Wants.”
These new narratives will allow both sides to transcend division and achieve unity. The industry takes credit for its concessions and the union links its success to larger social forces. America wants and needs that. Fierce political debates have given rise to a widespread chronic polarization stress syndrome.
Yes, easier said than done. It’s difficult for the UAW and the Big Three to get there because their leadership grew up in an us-versus-them environment. Today, it is time to replace these calcified narratives with consensus thinking.
Adam Hanft is a brand strategist who advises Fortune 500 companies, some of the world’s most innovative startups, and global leaders.
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