Auto Workers Debate Contracts: Tall Gains, Taller Expectations
On breaks between harnessing wires and bolting fenders, Auto Workers across the country are debating the contract offers their strike wrenched out of Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis.
Just a fraction of plants have voted, with the rest set to cast ballots in the next two weeks. Contract details are here.
Ford locals have been the first to weigh in. Three larger locals voted heavily in favor of the deal. Two other major locals passed the offer with a narrower majority, reflecting that members’ expectations were raised sharply by new leaders and an aggressive contract fight.
The first Ford plant to strike was Michigan Assembly near Detroit. With about four-fifths of the 5,000 members casting ballots, the local voted ‘yes’ by 82 percent.
Longtime production worker Audrey Bell says she and her co-workers had few qualms about the major gains made: “I think it’s basically good, especially for the new workers. We made big progress on two tiers. Got the COLA [cost-of-living adjustment] back.”
At Ford Chicago Assembly, members passed the deal by a slimmer 57 percent, on 56 percent turnout. This local has often rejected tentative contracts, turning down the 2019 deal by nearly two-thirds. Members there joined the Stand-Up Strike on September 29.
Scott Houldieson, who’s worked as an electrician at the plant for 34 years, supported the agreement. (He is chair of the caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy, UAWD, which opted for a neutral stance.) “It was a strike that was trying to dig us out of 40 years of concessions, 40 years of cooperating with the companies, 40 years of corruption,” Houldieson said.
“We didn’t get it all. But nobody should expect to get it all in one set of contract negotiations. We won record wage increases, we got back COLA. Ending wage tiers is huge. We got our foot in the door with the transition to electric vehicles. The companies were wanting to leave us completely out of the equation.”
Across many plants, newer workers and temps have tended to back the deal, eager for its faster track to top wages and job security.
Temporaries with more than 90 days in will be converted to permanent status immediately. Future temps will become permanent after nine months, and those nine months will count toward their progression to top rate.
Opposition to the agreement appears to be coming more from members who have more years in and believed this year was their best chance to eliminate the benefits tiers that remain.
At a Ford parts hub in California that voted narrowly to back the deal, one veteran worker said, “People are happy about COLA. It’s something we didn’t think we’d get back. But more change needs to come. We were promised pensions for all. A lot of people just had their hopes up.”
DEMOCRACY IN SPURTS
“In our plant, it’s a little torn,” said Julian Thomas, who has worked assembly and repair for 10 years at Toledo Jeep, a major Stellantis plant that will vote November 15. “A lot of full-timers are leaning no. A lot of temps are leaning yes. Even on my line, some people just want to get back to make money, and other people say, ‘This isn’t everything we could get.’” The Jeep plant was on strike for six weeks.
Throughout the strikes Fain gave Facebook Live updates to inform members of bargaining progress. At Toledo Jeep this week, managers agreed to stop the line to let members watch (see sidebar).
Instead of declaring the fight over, with kudos for the bargaining team, Fain highlighted how members “are also teaching each other and learning from each other. Fighting and winning is contagious.” In the chat window, many members praised the union’s new transparency.
Local union officers have had leeway to decide how their members officially meet about the contract, and how soon. With most locals still in an old-guard grip, approaches have varied widely.
Many workers are using shop floor pauses as a chance to press their case. “It's been an every-day debate on the lines,” said Thomas, with some members bringing printouts of Stellantis profits to argue the company can afford a better deal on wages and retirement.
Online debate is also raging, although most members told Labor Notes they found Facebook quarrels rarely brought out the best-informed or representative takes.
The UAWD caucus organized “speak out” Zoom meetings for Big 3 workers, which brought hundreds together. At a follow-up meeting, auto workers in the caucus passed a resolution to “celebrate the record gains” while remaining neutral on how members should vote.
Sara Noonan, a UAWD member at Ford’s Ohio Assembly Plant, said, “I voted for UAWD to stay neutral. We want to help people get the information they need this time, not telling them to vote this way or that way.”
Houldieson, the caucus chair, said reformers were clear there was much left to fight for. “We have people in UAWD who are deeply troubled by the fact that there remain benefit tiers,” he said, referring to the lack of pensions and retirement health care for all post-2007 hires. “We agreed to celebrate our victories while being realistic about what more we have to accomplish.”
Still, Houldieson said, “There can be no doubt that what we won was bigger than any contract we’ve won in 60 years.”
SPLITS ON WAGES
Nearly every member interviewed agreed the offers were strong for one group in particular: temps, who start at under $17 and whom managers often string along for years.
The new deals would bump temp starting wages to $21 and turn them permanent within nine months. Over the life of the contract, current temps turned permanent would see their pay more than double.
“Temps are so excited,” said Noonan, who worked over a year as a temp. “I've been telling a friend, now would be the time to get a job at Ford.”
The deep hole from past concessions set the bar high for many longer-term workers. The California Ford parts hub worker said, “In 1999, top pay at the end of that contract was $30.08. Nearly 20 years later, and we’re only up to $35.50 immediately.
“If we had gotten all our raises in the last 16 years and there wasn’t inflation, this 11 percent [immediate raise] would be astronomical.” But with the UAW agreeing to wage freezes and many years of lump sums over the past 20 years, some workers are frustrated the union did not win bigger wage increases.
Top pay will be $42.60 by the end of the agreement in 2028.
One surprise bonus: Stellantis and GM, the last two companies to settle, will pay each striker $110 a day for their time on the picket line, on top of the union’s $500 a week strike pay.
RETIREMENT STICKING POINTS
Retirement benefits were an even steeper fight. During the 2007 recession, UAW leaders agreed new hires would not get the defined-benefit pensions or retirement health care that “legacy” workers have.
The tentative deals eliminate the wage tiers created then, and bump company contributions to workers’ 401(k)s from 6.4 percent to 10 percent, with no match from workers required. But under fierce Wall Street pressure, executives refused to bring back pensions or health care to end the benefit tiers.
Mervin White, an alternate benefits rep with nine years at Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly near Detroit, said, “Senior members are more concerned about pensions and [retiree] health care. Health care for me is a dealbreaker.” But he considers the 401(k) gains “a good bump if you’re taking advantage of it.”
Deneen Brewer, at Stellantis Jefferson North Assembly in Detroit, said longer-term workers without pensions had widely hoped for more. “They wanted to be able to retire from here, not just quit. I’m sad too. For people with more time in, those increases on the 401(k) are not going to be enough [to accumulate before they retire].” Workers were hoping for the 30-years-and-out pensions that Big 3 workers hired before 2007 get, along with health care till they reach Medicare age.
In the eyes of Mary Ost, at Ford Buffalo Stamping, those limits didn’t outweigh the contract gains, because second-tier workers are all far from retirement: “They took that away in 2007, so nobody can retire with 30 years till 2037. We have some time to try to fix that.”
But for the legacy workers who are already retired, Ost echoed other members in saying, “I’m a little bit disappointed. They did not get much. They raised the [30-and-out] pension by $295 monthly,” a roughly 9 percent increase that brings the defined benefit to about $42,000 a year.
While boosting take-home pay, the tentative deals made fewer gains on shop floor rules and schedules.
Members across multiple plants said they had hoped to draw firmer lines against forced overtime, which in some plants mandates 60-hour weeks. But they acknowledged many of their co-workers were hungry to volunteer for extra shifts.
“A lot of people are concerned about the schedule. If we lose some OT, they want more up front.” said Thomas at Toledo Jeep. “Work-life balance and overtime usually gets poured down to the local contract.” That local rider is supposed to be settled in the month after the national agreement, but revisions have dragged out for years in the past.
The new Ford and Stellantis contracts give workers more leeway on attendance before facing discipline. But Thomas said the Stellantis deal would also shift financial incentives in the opposite direction: “The whole plant gets punished on bonuses if attendance is low. A lot of people don’t like that.”
Gains for parental leave were a bright spot for workers like Noonan, at Ford Ohio Assembly. “A lot of people are happy about the extra 80 hours of paid time for parental care. That's a start, though I had hoped it would help those of us who take care of our parents too.”
However the contract votes land at each company, Auto Workers largely agreed the deals reflected big strides beyond the dead-ends of past leadership. Noonan said, “The old Administration Caucus probably would have got a 6 percent raise over four years [as in the 2019 contracts]. They can claim this win all they want, but we all know differently.”
Many workers said they hoped their union would keep the fight going post-contract, although they weren’t yet clear how.
“It felt good to be back in the fight,” said Houldieson, the UAWD leader from Ford Chicago. “We need to make sure we maintain that power, and that’s up to members on the shop floor learning to enforce their own contract.”
“It’s also gonna be important to make sure that we have local leaders that are ready and willing to enforce the contract. Too many have gotten very comfortable with where they got their power from. Under business unionism, the old-guard unionism, they got their power from the company.”
“Now we need to switch that equation around, put the power back in the hands of members.
That’s how we can win health care, win pensions, organize all the battery and EV operations and make sure they’re all up to assembly-level wages.”
Jane Slaughter and Dan DiMaggio contributed reporting for this article.