Plant Closures Are the Tip of the Auto Companies’ Anti-Worker Spear

Plant closures are one of automakers’ most brutal tools to discipline the workforce. The UAW’s new reform leadership will have to lead a fight against such closures to reverse the decades of concessions forced upon workers.

A worker leaves the Belvidere Assembly Plant, idled indefinitely as of February 28. Stellantis was the largest employer in Belvidere, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

On March 1, Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) “idled” the Belvidere Assembly Plant in Illinois — putting 1,350 people out of work indefinitely, with the threat hanging over them that the plant might stay closed forever.

Is Stellantis hurting for money? Absolutely not. In fact, the corporation has recently had some of its best years on record. This is a clear attempt to use the plant as a cudgel, as the Big Three automakers head into negotiations with the United Auto Workers (UAW) this fall.

It’s a signal that, despite record profits, the companies will remain true to their same old playbook — holding people’s livelihoods over their heads and holding communities at ransom.

A Devastating Effect

An auto plant closure can destroy the community surrounding it. Every job inside the plant supports seven jobs outside — at the suppliers that produce seats, plastic, headliners, glass, and so on. Then there’s the supply chain to get those products into the plant — all those jobs leave as well.

Mom-and-pop shops have fewer customers, doctors have fewer patients, after-school programs have fewer kids, and charities have less money.

There’s also a cost to families. When workers leave the area to keep their jobs, kids grow up seeing one parent only on the weekends, if they’re lucky. Parents and grandparents go through major health events without family support. In some extremely tragic cases, workers end up taking their own lives.

I recently called my mom and asked her to sum up her experience as a General Motors worker in Janesville, Wisconsin, when the company closed the plant in 2009 during the Great Recession.

“Devastation,” she said. Then there was a pause. “It wasn’t just GM, it was all the subsystems that fed into GM. They all left too. It destroyed the community. It was bad enough to be in a recession, but then to have the plant close?”

There were a few seconds of silence on the phone. “It was just . . . devastating,” she said again.

I asked a union brother of mine who was also from Janesville, Matt Gregerson, the same question.

“There’s a feeling of loss that still haunts me,” Gregerson told me, “and a guilt for having left my wife and children to transfer. I had to choose between supporting my family monetarily or being there physically.”

Temporary Concessions?

During the Great Recession, the UAW gave massive concessions to GM and Chrysler (now Stellantis); the concessions were then adopted at Ford too.

Numerous auto plants were closed. Current workers gave up benefits like a cost-of-living allowance and vacation time. Workers hired after the recession made half the pay, got reduced benefits, and didn’t even have a pension or health care in retirement.

While we gave massive concessions and plant after plant closed down, the Big Three CEOs flew to Washington, DC, in their private luxury jets to ask for bailout money.

Workers were told that these cuts would be temporary and that we had to do our part to help save the companies. Either we gave the government what it was demanding in order for the Big Three to receive the bailout loans, or GM and Chrysler would go under. That was the reality at the time.

And we did — we gave up a lot. But the cuts and plant closings were never temporary. Fifteen years later, the workers who gave up so much to help the Big Three still haven’t been made whole.

Layoffs in Good Times?

Since then, the Detroit automakers have been making billions of dollars almost every year. Collectively, over the past decade, they’ve amassed $160 billion in profit; GM alone has made $63 billion.

So there was no justification when GM announced in 2018 (the year before contract negotiations) that the company was closing three assembly plants and two other facilities across Michigan, Maryland, and Ohio, eliminating an estimated fourteen thousand jobs.

For its part, Stellantis brought in net profits of $18 billion in 2022, one year after the company was formed by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot. The pay package for CEO Carlos Tavares last year totaled $24.8 million.

Yet even during the best of times, this company is laying off workers and “idling” a plant — harming the very people who helped it make such record profits.

Voted for Militancy

The UAW just wrapped up a historic election where members got to vote directly for their top leaders for the first time in the union’s history. The rank and file voted for change and a more militant stance with their employers. With seven seats contested, reform-minded candidates won every single one.

The union has vowed to fight to restart production at Belvidere. “This economic dislocation is a choice made by Stellantis to reap even higher profits,” said UAW vice president and Stellantis department director Rich Boyer, who was elected on the Members United slate last year. “We will highlight their corporate greed to workers, community, taxpayers, and consumers.”

At the recent UAW Special Bargaining Convention, the union’s International Executive Board appeared to be in total unison, calling on autoworkers to unite against our true enemies: “multibillion-dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share.”

Every leader got up and gave a rousing speech on unity and militancy ahead of negotiations. But after decades of concessions and losing, talk is cheap. Results must be delivered.

The entire membership of our union must be mobilized, united, and prepared for the fight that is coming our way.