Why auto workers are striking

DETROIT, Mich. and TOLEDO, Ohio — Whether new temps or 25-year veterans, autoworkers battling the “Big 3” in an unprecedented strike say they are fighting to restore their jobs at the reference work level. class careers that they were in previous generations.

Wages in the broader auto industry have fallen nearly 20% since 2008, when adjusted for inflation. Today, Ford, General Motors and Jeep parent company Stellantis face their first simultaneous strike in the 88-year history of the United Auto Workers.

As their union leaders negotiate new four-year contracts, workers say they are determined to reclaim previous concessions that reduced pay scales for new workers and sacrificed the hard-won standards their parents and grandparents enjoyed, including defined benefit pension.

“We gave up a lot,” said Kenyon Reed, who works in GM’s paint shop. Factory ZERO, which produces the Hummer electric SUV and the Silverado electric pickup. “I feel like they owe me.”

Reed attended a rally in downtown Detroit on Friday where he held up a UAW strike sign, the same one he held up on the picket line during the union’s six-week strike against GM in 2019. ZERO factory workers haven’t walked out – ‘targets’ So far, strikes have only affected one facility at each of the big three – but Reed says he’s ready to respond to his union’s call if the work stoppage extended.

The 12-year GM employee called his union’s last two deals with the company, in 2015 and 2019, “bullshit contracts.”

“This one, they have to heal me,” Reed said.

GM employee Kenyon Reed and his family. Reed said he expects big increases in this contract to make up for previous concessions.

Working at an auto manufacturing plant in the Midwest has long been seen as a route to the middle class, due to the UAW’s unionization that began under the leadership of Walter Reuther, its longtime leader, in the 1930s. The standards established by the union allowed a person with or without a college degree to support their family on a single income and expect reasonable financial security in retirement.

But the job isn’t what it used to be, thanks to market growth from foreign-based automakers like Toyota and Honda, coupled with concessions made by the UAW to help stabilize the Big 3 as a result. of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. This included the creation of a “tiered” system in which new recruits spend eight years progressing towards the highest pay rate, the elimination of increases in the cost of life to mitigate inflation and the shift away from pensions to 401(k) plans.

The Economic Policy Institute think tank says falling real wages among UAW workers have had a ‘ripple effect’ on the broader auto manufacturing sector, also helping to suppress wages non-unionized foreign competitors.

Chanelle Hardy, 18, is on strike at the Jeep assembly plant in Toledo. His father, aunt, great-uncle, and great-aunt also worked in the industry. She said many of her older relatives were surprised to learn that her starting salary was only $15.78 an hour as a “supplemental employee” or temp at Stellantis.

“Growing up, Jeep was like a good job… Get a job at Jeep and you’re set for life,” said Hardy, who works the first shift and starts at 5:30 a.m. “But I turned 18, I came to Jeep and I was making $15. So it’s not the Jeep I thought it was.

Higher wages await Hardy if she sticks around: the current top rate at the plant is $31.77. But it would currently take her eight years to reach that salary – once she becomes a full-time employee. (During contract negotiations, the Big Three all offered to reduce that time frame to four years.) She said it was understandable that her former high school classmates wouldn’t be scrambling to get a job at the factory.

“I have friends at Chick-fil-A who make $17,” she said.

Chanelle Hardy, 18, works at the Jeep assembly plant in Toledo.  She said she made less than  an hour as a temp.
Chanelle Hardy, 18, works at the Jeep assembly plant in Toledo. She said she made less than $16 an hour as a temp.

Montrice Mahan, another temp at the Jeep plant, said the quality of the contract they get will likely determine whether he sticks around. He said he made $16.77 an hour and his schedule fluctuated unpredictably.

“If the contract doesn’t change, I’m going to leave,” said Mahan, 25, who works on electrical harnesses. “It’s not worth it. I could go to Taco Bell…and make $17.

It can be notoriously difficult for a union to win back what it conceded in a previous negotiation. After all, the employer always has a reason why things can’t go back to the way they were. The Big Three said the union’s demands to dramatically raise wages and restore inflation and pension adjustments would make labor costs unsustainable and prevent their transition to electric vehicles.

But workers point to all the money the Big 3 have raked in in recent contracts, including a 92% increase in profits between 2013 and 2022, for a total of $250 billion, according to the EPI.

“We’re just trying to get back to where we were,” said Harmon, a 48-year-old striker at Ford who asked to keep his last name. “We had difficulty retaining this blue oval inscription. We made these concessions. Today, they are making record profits. All we want is a fair deal.

Even though he wouldn’t personally benefit from the elimination of tiers, the 30-year veteran mentioned it first when expressing his concerns about the contract.

“I want these young children to have a better life. This has gone on too long,” he said.

Justin Skytta, of Livonia, holds his sign in solidarity with members of the United Auto Workers, in front of the Ford of Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, Thursday, September 14.
Justin Skytta, of Livonia, holds his sign in solidarity with members of the United Auto Workers, in front of the Ford of Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, Thursday, September 14.

That kind of talk extends to the union’s top, where new UAW President Shawn Fain has given impassioned speeches portraying the strike as a broader battle for middle-class jobs. Fain abandoned the union’s old strategy of negotiating a contract with one of the big three and then trying to model other contracts after that. Instead, he and other leaders chose to negotiate – and strike – all three at the same time.

Negotiations between the UAW and the three companies have continued since the strikes began Friday, but the two sides remain at odds over key issues, including raises. Fain said on “Face the Nation” Sunday that the union was prepared to “amplify this thing even more» and strike for additional facilities if companies do not improve their offerings.

Reed, the GM worker, said he was pleased with the union’s militant stance. He left his job one day in July, and as he was leaving the factory he was stopped by Fain himself. Rather than kicking off negotiations by shaking hands with Big 3 executives, as was the custom of the UAW, Fain decided to conduct a “membership handshake” at a few plants to symbolize new leadership. This is how Reed met the leader of his union.

At first, Reed was unsure about the strategy of hitting only selected plants rather than all at once, but the strategy playbook grew on him as it leaves room for escalation. He said he thought Fain was playing “chess, not checkers.”

“It’s really getting worldwide attention,” he said.


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