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UAW launches historic strike against Big Three automakers

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Washington Post
September 15, 2023 at 18:20

United Autos Workers union members began picketing on Sept. 15 at three locations, including a Ford plant in Wayne, Mich., and a Stellantis plant in Toledo. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

WAYNE, Mich. — The United Auto Workers union launched a historic but targeted strike Friday against all three of Detroit’s biggest automakers, with about 8 percent of its auto members walking off the job in a work stoppage that could grow over time if the union doesn’t get what it wants.

Boisterous picket lines formed outside a Ford plant in Wayne, Mich., a General Motors plant in Wentzville, Mo., and a Stellantis plant in Toledo as the union and the Big Three remained far apart on wages, benefits and worker schedules after weeks of acrimonious contract talks.

Striking workers at the Ford factory at one point blocked two semitrucks from entering the plant. After 20 minutes, the trucks pulled away, and the crowd erupted in cheers.

“I’m striking because I want this to be my last and permanent job, a future,” said Amanda Robbins, 38. “We work at Ford and can’t even afford the cars we make.” Robbins makes about $24 an hour after a little more than 3 years on the job. She and her husband, who works at General Motors, struggle to support their 3-year-old and have to pick up extra jobs, she said.

About 12,700 of the union’s 150,000 automotive members are striking. UAW president Shawn Fain has ordered the rest to continue working unless called upon to join the strike, but that strategy quickly ran into trouble.

On Friday, General Motors said it expects to idle a nonstriking plant in Kansas City, Kan., next week and send its 2,000 workers on temporary unemployment because the factory is about to run out of parts from the striking Wentzville plant. And Ford said it will temporarily lay off 6oo nonstriking workers in Wayne, Mich., because their work relies on materials produced by a striking plant nearby.

None of the GM or Ford workers will receive the traditional company-financed unemployment payments they would normally get when a plant is idled, the companies said. GM said that’s because they’re working under an expired contract.

“We have said repeatedly that nobody wins in a strike, and that effects go well beyond our employees on the plant floor and negatively impact our customers, suppliers and the communities where we do business,” GM said in a statement.

Alarmed about the strike’s potential impact on an industry that makes up 3 percent of gross national product, President Biden on Friday said he is sending acting labor secretary Julie Su and senior adviser Gene Sperling to Detroit to help to “offer their full support” to help the union and Big Three automakers negotiate a contract.

“It’s my hope that the parties can return to the negotiation table to forge a win-win agreement,” Biden said Friday during a news conference.

He expressed support for autoworkers’ rights “even though no one wants a strike,” adding that Ford, General Motors and Stellantis have made “significant” offers but that they could go further, given the companies’ profitability.

“Record corporate profits should be shared by record contracts for the UAW,” Biden said.

Fain later criticized part of the president’s remarks, exposing more of the unusual strain that has defined the union leader’s relationship with a Democratic president who has called himself “the most pro-union president” in American history.

“We don’t agree when he says negotiations have broken down,” Fain said. “Our national elected negotiators and UAW leadership are hard at work at the bargaining table.

“Working people are not afraid,” Fain added. “You know who’s afraid? The corporate media is afraid. The White House is afraid. The companies are afraid.”

Tension between Fain and Biden bubbled up earlier this year, when the UAW broke with other unions and withheld its endorsement of the president’s reelection, saying Biden had to earn it. Some in the White House have struggled to understand Fain’s negotiating positions and priorities, making it difficult for them to help the negotiations, according to White House officials.

In the contract talks, the UAW is demanding a wage increase of 36 percent over four years, while the carmakers have boosted their offers to between 17.5 percent and 20 percent over 4 1/2 years.

Fain has called those offers inadequate after years of sharp inflation and fat corporate profits and executive pay. And he has threatened to broaden the strike over time if talks remain unsuccessful.

The automakers argue that they are offering better wage hikes and benefits than they have in decades. Ford calls its offer the best in 80 years. GM Chief Executive Mary Barra on Friday told CBS News the company’s offer is “a record from a gross wage increase perspective in our 115 year history.”

But she said GM can’t meet all of the union’s demands and still remain viable. Those demands include a 32-hour workweek, defined-benefit pensions for all workers instead of 401(k) accounts, and company-financed health care in retirement.

It’s the first time the union has launched a strike of any size on all three companies at the same time. The last national auto strike was against General Motors in 2019.

At the Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne, close to 200 people, union members and supporters in red T-shirts — some waving banners that read “Saving the American Dream” — congregated outside a union hall across the road from the Michigan Assembly plant. As the clock struck midnight, they broke into song with “Solidarity Forever.”

Adelisa LeBron, a striking Ford employee who works on the engine line at the Michigan Assembly, said she’s on strike, because as a single mother she can’t afford to support to her kids without a second job. LeBron brought her mother — who also works for Ford — and daughter to the picket line Friday morning. LeBron makes $24 an hour after two years at the facility. “As a single parent, I’m working paycheck to paycheck,” LeBron said. “I love the way Shawn is fighting for us, how he’s not going to settle.”

Ford CEO Jim Farley said Thursday that had the company provided a package including all of the union’s demands over the past four years, it would have racked up losses of $15 billion and “gone bankrupt by now.”

“There is no way we can be sustainable as a company” under these terms, Farley told CNBC. “You want us to choose bankruptcy over supporting our workers? Here’s our proposal — let’s work through this.”

Farley this week also accused the union of staging “PR events” and failing to respond to Ford’s latest offer. The union is planning a rally with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Detroit on Friday evening.

Late Thursday, Ford said the UAW had finally responded to the company’s offer but had shown “little movement” in its position.

The Stellantis plant in Toledo makes Jeep Wranglers and Jeep Gladiators, and it employs about 5,800 UAW members, according to the union. GM’s Wentzville plant makes Chevrolet Colorado trucks and Express vans as well as GMC Canyon trucks and Savana vans, employing about 3,600 union members. Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne makes Ranger trucks and Bronco SUVs and employs about 3,300 UAW workers in the parts of the factory that are striking — final assembly and the paint shop.

At the Ford plant in Wayne on Thursday, workers were dismissed five hours early from the night shift, which ends at 4:30 a.m., in anticipation of the work stoppage. Sharifia Fambro, 52, who works on Broncos for $19.10 an hour, said she was striking to eliminate employment tiers that disadvantage newer workers like herself. Fambro does not receive retirement benefits and can barely keep up with her $1,200 monthly rent payments, she said. “No I’m not worried about going out on strike,” Fambro said. “I’m thinking about the big picture.”

Striking workers stop receiving wages from the companies and get paid $500 a week out of the UAW’s strike fund instead. Full-time UAW workers earn between $18 and $32 an hour.

Ford officials on Thursday cautioned that workers in nonstriking plants will also be hurt if a location that lacks parts from striking plants is forced to halt production. In that case, many of those workers will be sent on temporary unemployment, in line with Ford’s usual policy when plants are idled over a lack of parts, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Early Friday morning, Stellantis officials said in a statement they are “extremely disappointed by the UAW leadership’s refusal to engage in a responsible manner to reach a fair agreement in the best interest of our employees, their families and our customers.”

The UAW’s 150,000 automotive members produce nearly half of the light vehicles manufactured in the United States, according to analytics firm GlobalData.

A strike that significantly hurts auto production could quickly ripple out to affect suppliers and other businesses in auto manufacturing communities. As auto factories shut down, those businesses would stop ordering parts. Many auto parts suppliers are still trying to recover from long shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic and would be clobbered by another disruption, analysts say.

Biden spoke with Fain and the executives of the auto companies Thursday, a White House spokesperson said. The White House is preparing economic measures to protect suppliers to the auto industry from long-term damage, concerned that they will be particularly vulnerable in any strike, according to three people aware of internal conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.

Su has been involved in mediating several high-profile labor disputes, including last year’s railroad agreement and the negotiations at West Coast ports. Sperling is a lawyer and economic policy expert who had already been designated as Biden’s liaison to the UAW.

The automakers have argued that a big hike in their labor costs, or a prolonged shutdown, would undermine their efforts to scale up production of electric vehicles, a major undertaking that is costing the global auto industry tens of billions of dollars.

Fain has argued that workers deserve the same generous pay increases that executives got over the life of the current contract, which was signed in 2019.

GM chief executive Barra’s compensation grew by 34 percent between 2019 and 2022, to $29 million last year. Ford’s CEO pay grew by 21 percent over that period, to $21 million last year. Stellantis, headquartered in the Netherlands and formed through a 2021 merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot SA, didn’t exist when the contract began. Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares earned about $25 million last year, including long-term incentives.

Workers all over the country have fought to boost wages that have not kept up with inflation. Consumer prices have jumped by 20 percent since the UAW signed its last contract in 2019, and starting wages at the Big Three are about $10 lower than what they would be had they kept up with inflation since 2007, the UAW said.

Beyond the wage increases they are offering, the companies have made other concessions. All three are offering to allow workers to progress to the highest wage level at a faster rate than in the past. They’ve also made concessions on temporary workers, who make far less than full-time workers do and often get stuck in temp status for years. Ford is proposing converting all of its current temporary workers to full-time status after 90 days of work, while GM and Stellantis are offering an immediate 20 percent raise over temps’ starting wage, to $20 an hour.

At the Jeep factory in Toledo, hundreds of workers streamed out of the plant’s nine gates as the strike began, according to Phil Reiter, a night-shift worker who said he makes $31.77 an hour after 10 years.

Outside, hundreds of day shift workers were waiting beyond the factory gates to cheer them on as they filed out, Reiter said in a phone interview. Among the workers walking out, some were cheering and some were anxious, he said, adding that he felt a mix of both.

“Obviously there is never any guarantee on how long something like this will last,” he said. “My gut is it won’t be long … but Stellantis, their main concern seems to be profit, period.”

Toluse Olorunnipa and Jeff Stein in Washington contributed to this report.

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