The union that once set the gold standard for American wages is giving up pay raises in exchange for a piece of the auto industry’s profits and the promise of thousands of new jobs.

Under agreements struck with Ford and General Motors, most of the companies’ factory workers will get profit-sharing checks instead of annual raises. They’ll also get a signing bonus. In turn, the automakers will increase their workforces and invest billions more dollars in their factories.

It’s an unusual turnabout for the United Auto Workers. For decades, its members’ pay and benefits were the envy of workers around the world, and it wouldn’t hesitate to strike to protect them. But the agreement signals a new reality. After the industry nearly collapsed two years ago, a sobered UAW is no longer fighting the Big Three but fighting to compete against rivals who pay their workers far less.

“We are aware of the competition that Ford and General Motors and Chrysler face,” UAW President Bob King said Tuesday after announcing terms of a new four-year contract with Ford. “If we are going to succeed in the long run and really be able to have long-run security and decent income for our membership, we can’t put Ford and GM and Chrysler at a competitive disadvantage.”

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