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UAW Strikers are Focusing On Executive Pay. Here’s Why It’s Working.

A crowd of people carrying "UAW on strike" picketing signs

On September 15, the United Auto Workers (UAW) kicked off a rolling strike in support of contract negotiations for wage increases. Meanwhile, both the union and the Big Three automakers – GM, Ford, and Stellantis – took to the media and social feeds to make their cases.

While President Biden traveled to Michigan to join the UAW picket line, Swayable’s Elections & Advocacy team ran tests to determine what impact each side’s messages were having on public opinion. These data revealed that opinions are highly malleable on the issue, but that some narratives from each side are having far more effect than others.

What isn't working for the UAW

The team tested an interview featuring UAW president Shawn Fain discussing the nation’s broader economic conditions that disadvantage workers. This did yield a modest bump in strike support among registered Democrats compared to the control group—by +2.2 points—it failed to significantly boost favorability for the UAW. Among registered Republicans, the messaging had no measurable impact at all.

We tested this section of Shawn Fain's interview with Face the Nation.

UAW Image 1

Results that are colored in are statistically significant at an 80% confidence interval.

What has been working for the automakers?

In contrast, some messaging from the Big Three automakers has been very effective. We tested a CNBC interview with GM CEO Mary Barra, who portrayed the union as unreasonable, arguing that the Big Three had already offered a historic labor contract. This message resulted in substantial reductions of both UAW favorability and strike support, with decreases relative to the control group of -3.5 and -5.3 points, respectively.

We tested this section of GM CEO Mary Barra's interview with CNBC.

Among Trump voters, this clip was especially powerful, dropping UAW Favorability by -5.5 points and Strike Support by -8.0 points. This is a dramatic effect, and shouldn’t be overlooked; it shows that Trump voters who are exposed to the Big Three’s messaging are more likely to oppose the strike than support it.

UAW Image 2

The clip was very effective at reducing UAW favorability, and support for the strike.

What has been working for the UAW?

While talking about the broader economic conditions that led to the strike was not effective for the UAW, focusing on executive pay was. A pointed CNN interview of GM CEO, Mary Barra, went viral last week hitting on this exact point. Why, asked the interviewer, should workers only get a 20% increase in pay over the next four years, while Mary Barra has received a 40% increase in pay in the same length of time?

We tested this section of Mary Barra's interview with CNN.

The UAW capitalized with a sharply-worded tweet pointing out what has become a lynchpin of their messaging – that Big Three CEOs receive disproportionately high salaries compared to frontline workers. That tweet has since racked up over 400,000 views.

The UAW's viral tweet on the CNN interview.

Swayable results show that this argument isn’t just engaging people on social media – it’s causing a significant shift in opinion. Compared to a neutral control group, the CNN clip by itself lifted support for the strike by +2.4 points, and the CNN clip followed immediately by the UAW tweet lifted support by +4.1 points, a very strong result.

UAW Image 4

The combination of the UAW tweet and the CNN clip was the most effective at increasing support for the strike.

The UAW’s drilling down on executive pay is effective across the political spectrum. Although Donald Trump voters have lower baselines of support for the strike (57.3) compared to Biden voters (66.0), our data shows that Trump voters were strongly moved by executive pay messaging, showing an average increase of 5.1 points in strike support.

UAW Image 5

Trump voters exposed to the executive pay messaging had significantly higher levels of support for the strike and the UAW.

It’s also persuasive regardless of gender; both men and women were significantly moved by the executive pay messaging. This contrasts with the macroeconomic argument made by UAW leadership, which was effective at increasing strike support among men, but had no significant effect among women.

UAW Image 6

The CNN clip followed by the UAW tweet caused significant movement regardless of gender.

As the public back-and-forth between automakers and the UAW continues, the narratives that rise to the surface will have major implications for the outcome of the strike. While messaging from the automakers has demonstrated its effectiveness, it's clear that union supporters hold a distinct advantage in conversations centered on executive pay—a strong central narrative that cuts across political and demographic lines.

Our full test results include additional clips, additional metrics, and a wide range of segments, including cuts by age, income, ethnicity, union membership, and many others. It’s available here.

For further information or to set up Swayable tests of your own marketing or public communications, contact


This monadic RCT survey experiment was conducted over 24 hours between 9/19 and 9/20 with responses from 5199 U.S. consumers. Questions were asked of a general population sample aged 18+, using Swayable’s proprietary online platform.

The sample frame is U.S. smartphone users in all 50 states with active internet connections who are users of popular mobile and web apps that make up Swayable’s network of respondent partners. Respondents are solicited from partner apps with non-monetary reward offers for their participation. Respondents were recruited with an approximately even ratio of men and women imposed via separate quotas for each. This is a “non-probability sample” (in the conventional terminology of public opinion research, although the team’s position is that this concept is not meaningful because truly random sampling of the population is not possible via any methodology). To correct for over/under-sampling, all samples are post-stratified to the general U.S. population using cross-tabulations accounting for factors including age, ethnicity, gender, educational attainment and geography, based on the latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Swayable’s proprietary population modeling. Margins of error quoted are based on response distribution statistics and sample sizes and are calculated independently for each stated result.

Levels of UAW support were obtained from relevant respondents by asking “How favorable is your opinion of United Auto Workers (UAW)?” and “How would you describe your opinion of the ongoing United Auto Workers strike?”.

This research was conducted and self-funded by Swayable and was not requested by any client or campaign.