‘The Cost of Doing Nothing Is Much Higher’: Big Three Auto Workers Prepare to Strike
Two days before their contract expires at midnight Thursday, the Auto Workers (UAW) are poised to strike the Big 3 automakers—General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis—to recoup concessions made over the past two decades, end tiers, boost wages, and fight for a shorter workweek and other quality-of-life demands.
UAW President Shawn Fain was elected in March on a slate backed by the reform movement Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), on a platform of “no corruption, no concessions, no tiers,” ending nearly 80 years of one-party rule in the union.
The reform slate won every seat it contested and came into office with a mandate to take the union in a more militant direction, similar to the leadership shakeup in the Teamsters in 2021.
MANDATE TO FIGHT
Members had grown cynical and disconnected from the union over the decades—owing to leaders’ cozy relationship with management, not to mention corruption scandals. But it’s a new day.
Chris Viola, who works at GM’s electric vehicle plant in Detroit, Michigan, has seen a big shift among his co-workers in UAW Local 22. “In my plant, it’s a 180,” he said. “People are coming up to me to tell me what’s going on, instead of the other way around.”
UAWD member Dawnya Ferdinandsen has been an auto worker since 2006. She worked for GM parts supplier Delphi until it went bankrupt. In 2016 she was rolled over to work directly for GM in Toledo, Ohio.
“I lost everything,” she said: 10 years of seniority and her entire pension. She hopes the new contract will make the former Delphi workers whole.
Ferdinandsen credits the union’s new leaders with a more transparent and militant approach to negotiations. “President Fain reaches out to the membership and gets us involved,” she said. “He keeps us updated on what's going on. That has never happened—at least not in my lifetime.
“And I have family who have been UAW, so I have deep roots in the union ever since I was little. I’ve never seen such militant action.”
The companies have responded with a counteroffensive. As contract expiration nears, members say Stellantis managers are stalking the factory floor, looking for ways to write workers up and speed them up, in violation of the contract.
“They brought industrial engineers from France to reset our jobs, because our industrial engineers are union,” said Chris Falzone at the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex, where he transferred after the shuttering of the Belvidere Assembly plant in Illinois.
“The industrial engineers have doubled up jobs, eliminating half the quality jobs,” he said. “Then they are complaining to us about the quality. They’re shooting themselves in the foot and then being like, ‘Oh, look at what the union workers are doing to us.’”
Nick Livick, a UAWD member and GM worker in Kansas City, says his co-workers are refusing to help management as they normally would—instead they are waiting for direct orders, and stopping the line when management starts it up early after a break.
Workers’ newfound eagerness to challenge management raises the question whether more might adopt “work-to-rule” tactics if they are still working after the contract expires. In a work-to rule workers follow management dictates to the letter rather than use the usual workarounds to keep things running.
“Work to rule! Don’t work around!” may soon be a slogan on the lips of auto workers.
Ford has secured a $4 billion line of credit, stockpiled parts, and trained 1,200 salaried employees as replacement workers to staff 23 parts distribution centers across 15 states, according to The Detroit News. Ford is planning to have engineers and other white-collar workers fill in for blue-collar workers to meet dealerships’ orders for replacement parts, from taillights to bumpers, in the event of a strike.
“Collision parts were [more greatly] impacted by the strike because those parts have to be stamped at the plants,” a GM spokesperson toldThe Detroit News after the 2019 strike, as customers with damaged vehicles grew frustrated with a parts shortage. “We’re sorry for the inconvenience some of our customers are experiencing. We have mobilized our entire network of suppliers, our warehousing and distribution teams and our dealers to minimize the impact to customers and get back to normal operations as quickly as possible.”
THE COST OF DOING NOTHING
As the automakers are making contingency plans, so is the union, filing unfair labor practice charges against GM and Stellantis for bargaining in bad faith. It's a common tactic unions deploy in anticipation of a strike to discourage the companies from hiring permanent replacements.
“They’re getting ready, so we’re getting ready,” said Fain on Facebook Live September 8; at the height of participation, 13,000 people were tuned in. “I’ve got two words for every Big 3 worker out there listening: ‘Stand up!’
“Be ready to stand up for yourselves. For your families. For your communities. Be ready to stand up against corporate greed, against management’s lies, against distortions in the media.
"Corporations want us to believe there’s nothing we can do to stop our race to the bottom,” Fain said. “Never forget that when our labor isn’t valued, we have the power to withhold it. We have the fundamental power of a strike. The cost of a strike might be high, but the cost of doing nothing is much higher.”
A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans support auto workers in their negotiations with the Big 3. The companies have been immensely profitable, raking in $21 billion in total profits in the first six months of this year. That’s on top of a combined $250 billion in North American profits from 2013 to 2022.
The last strike at the Big 3 was against GM in 2019; 46,000 workers pounded the pavement for 40 days, hammering the company’s bottom line to the tune of $3.6 billion. This time around, a first-ever simultaneous strike at all three automakers is looking increasingly likely.
STRIKING ALL THREE
“A simultaneous strike at the Big 3 has never happened because pattern bargaining was so entrenched,” said historian Nelson Lichtenstein, author of Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit. “The UAW targeted one of the Big 3 automakers, and after the settlement the other two copied the new contract. It was once thought that Ford was more amenable to various breakthroughs, because that company did make money but was family-owned, which gave management there more latitude if Ford was worried about family PR.”
The Ford family has been amassing control over the company in the past years, holding 40 percent of voting power. At Stellantis, Exor, a holding company controlled by the Italian Agnelli family, founders of Fiat, is the top shareholder. Investment management firms Capital Group and BlackRock are the top shareholders of GM.
The Canadian auto union Unifor selected Ford as its target in negotiations last month.
Industry mouthpiece Automotive News has speculated about how a bottleneck strike targeting key production sites may play out, providing a helpful list of possible targets.
NO MORE TIERS
Negotiations kicked off in July. When Fain spoke on Facebook September 8, he gestured to a garbage can behind him labeled “Big Three Proposals,” where he trashed the automakers’ counter-offers.
The union has put forward bold demands including a 40 percent wage boost and ending wage and benefit tiers. In the tier system, newer workers doing the same work as long-term ones are on a permanent track of lower wages and fewer benefits.
“We need a Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo contract: no more tiers,” said Joe Van Ostenbridge, a tier-two worker who drives a tractor-trailer for Stellantis in Michigan. “I drove a school bus for Birmingham Schools for $25 an hour—I came here for the benefits, but it takes you eight years to get to top scale and you have no pension, no retiree medical.”
“Knowing what we had in the past: You worked hard for 90 days and you were elevated to regular status,” said Tomica Alexander, a materials handler at the Stellantis Mack Assembly plant in Detroit. “Now we have two separate groups of workers.”
The UAW has proposed a 90-day progression to top rate and restoring pensions and health care post-retirement for all workers.
Exacerbating the inequality, new hires must start as temps until they are even allowed to become second-tier workers. David Williams is a temp at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant building Super Duty Trucks, Expeditions, and Lincoln Navigators. He says ending tiers would be a game-changer.
“We really wouldn’t have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck to make car and house payments,” he said.
Since Williams has not reached second-tier status yet, he’s constantly forced to choose between retaining his job and caring for his three daughters. He’s fearful that if he misses a day of work, it will count as a strike against him in the company’s point system, where after five write-ups, a temp is fired.
Temps have no control over their schedules. “I spent five years as a temp before I got rolled over,” said Adam Devooght, a second-generation auto worker at Stellantis in Michigan. “You’re walking on eggshells. You didn’t know what day you were going to work.”
“When they first start they’re glad to have the job—they’d scrub toilets with a toothbrush,” said UAW Local 898 President Corey Frost at a Labor Day march in Detroit. “But after a while, they’re working next to someone doing the same job for half the wage—it creates divisions. It’s not fair.”
Ford put a five-year progression in its counter-proposal, down from eight years, but still with no pensions or retiree health care for the second tier. GM and Stellantis proposed a six-year progression, also rejecting pensions and retiree health care.
GM’s proposal would also lock in a lower wage scale for its Component Holdings and Customer Care and Aftersales workers, who currently earn $16 to $17 an hour with an eight-year progression to top pay of $22 (CCA) and $31 (GMCH). The progression can be even longer when you count layoff periods.
The union is also demanding a shorter work week and the restoration of cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raises pegged to inflation, which it lost in 2009. Stellantis and GM didn’t move on the COLA demand; both have proposed lump sum bonuses instead.
Ford declared it was impossible to bring back a real COLA. Instead it has proposed a COLA that would kick in only when inflation goes above a certain threshold. The threshold is so high, the union says, this formula would result in zero COLA raises over the next four years, and would have meant no COLA raises in 10 of the last 13 years.
“That’s not COLA. That’s not even Diet COLA. That’s Coke Zero,” Fain said.
Over the weekend, the companies finally started bargaining in earnest, putting forward new counter-proposals. But as of today their proposals are still far from meeting members’ demands.
“It’s unfortunate the companies have waited until the last moments to get focused on the needs of 150,000 autoworkers, our families, and our communities,” said Fain September 11.
Conversion of temporary workers into permanent employees is a major sticking point at Stellantis, where temps are a greater share of the workforce than at the other two automakers.
The UAW is demanding that temporary workers be converted to permanent employees after 90 days, with full pay, benefits, and profit-sharing. The automakers have agreed in their proposals to raise temp pay to $20 an hour, but so far denied a path to full wages and benefits.
Other union demands address job security, as the auto industry undergoes seismic shifts in the transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles. The UAW is demanding that the EV transition not come at the expense of good jobs and should be used instead to improve safety standards and working conditions in auto manufacturing—conditions that have eroded over decades of concessions, capital flight, offshoring of jobs to Mexico, and the proliferation of non-union foreign-owned auto factories in the U.S.
These demands have raised expectations and fueled rank-and-file militancy. The strike authorization vote was nearly unanimous, and in the last weeks members have taken more than 100 actions, including rallies, practice pickets, and wearing red T-shirts on Wednesdays.
Falzone said his co-workers have been saving up for the strike, making sacrifices to go the distance. “It’s not, ‘Are we going to strike?’” he said. “It’s people asking, ‘How long do you think we’ll strike?’ There’s a real positive energy that people want what we’re owed.”
Livick reported from his GM plant that managers are getting ready: they have stopped stocking vending machines and removed some ice machines. “My plant is nervous but excited,” he said, “because we know from 2019 the cost to us for a strike, but everyone is optimistic, especially now that we know what we are fighting for.
“I was talking to someone who needed assistance from Harvesters [a food bank, in 2019] and he was saying he’d take it that far again if he had to, but he's better prepared now.”
Jane Slaughter contributed reporting.