David Sandoval remembers when he and his coworkers had a whole seventy-two seconds to assemble their sections of each seat for the Ford F-150, back when he started at a Michigan parts plant in 2004.
Today, sixty seconds is the deadline managers give each team racing at a dozen stations: to bolt the frame together, lay electronics, add heating and cooling gear, set cushions, and attach trim. Robotic lifting arms help on only one or two steps; handheld tools and elbow grease must do the rest. Each crew is told to clear 680 seats in a ten-hour shift.
That harsh speedup makes it small wonder that repetitive motion injuries are piling up for US autoworkers, while the Big Three auto companies — Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) — posted $250 billion in profits in just the last four years.
On September 14, union contracts expire for 144,000 Big Three workers. A company-wide strike at one of the three looks likely, especially after United Auto Workers (UAW) members elected a reform slate to lead their union. The new president, Shawn Fain, has pledged a contract campaign and a strike — if needed — to end wage tiers, and to put workers at the wheel of the transition to electric vehicles (EVs).
To understand how that contract fight starts from conditions on the shop floor, we interviewed workers at each of the Big Three companies and an independent parts supplier.
From the Midwest to the South, autoworkers say that their plant managers have seized on the pandemic and the EV transition to push an unsafe work pace, longer shifts and more of them, and divisions between workers. Meanwhile, some company executives are threatening layoffs and are openly preparing for a strike by stocking inventory and hiring temporary workers.
During the 2008 recession years, UAW leaders opened the door to “Alternative Work Schedules,” which require regular ten-hour and weekend shifts without overtime pay. Long after the downturn, plant managers have increasingly forced workers into these grinding schedules.
“At my plant, we’ve been doing six ten-hour days a week since June 2022,” said Charles Mitchell, an assembly worker at Stellantis Jefferson North in Detroit.
April this year was “the first month we’ve been back to five days, not having to work every Saturday.” That lasted only a month before managers returned to mandatory six-day weeks. In July, they declared a “critical” situation that allows them to demand seven days of work a week.
Bosses justified these breakneck schedules as needed to catch up after delays from pandemic-era microchip shortages, and to take advantage of booming car prices.
Workers told similar tales at Ford and GM. Building Ford Explorers in Chicago, David Johnson said he works from 5:00 a.m. to 4:40 p.m.: “It’s weird hours. It’s terrible hours.” At a GM plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, Kim Shaw described a grueling 2022: “We worked five or six twelve-hour shifts a week, for a year. It was horrible.”
These mandatory shifts meant constantly missing family events, sleep, and free time. For his coworkers, Mitchell said, “It’s taken a toll on childcare. That’s a factor why absenteeism jumped.”
Recently, bosses told his plant that a return to weekends off would happen only if workers achieved “a 95 percent quality rating,” meaning 95 percent of cars with zero defects, which Mitchell said is an unrealistic goal: “They’re dangling that to try and push us.”
Autoworkers generally agreed that work has become “lighter but faster” over the last few decades. Materials shifted from steel to more aluminum and composites. Robotic moving arms and joists gradually took on more tasks. Human hands perform the complicated moves robots still can’t, and with a speed, precision, and repetition that would be the envy of any machine.
But shifts are also more hectic and packed. A 2008 concession gave up eight minutes of break time in the Big Three contracts, from forty-eight minutes down to forty in an eight-hour day.
At GM Wentzville near St Louis, longtime assembly worker Katie Deatherage said, “GM has a thing where they try to eliminate a percentage of manpower every year. Line speed is faster and jobs are a little heavier because we don’t have the people. Our bones, our joints aren’t meant for that.”
This spring, Deatherage won election as president of her local, ousting an incumbent with her campaign pledge to stand up to the company.
Few longtime workers have been left without serious injuries. Of his Chicago Ford plant, Johnson said, “I believe that everyone who works there has probably sacrificed some part of their body for the job. I had two surgeries on my back, on both knees. My shoulders hurt, everything hurts.”
Workers nearing retirement need two hands to count their surgeries. That makes company cuts to retiree health care infuriating, especially as the job keeps speeding up.
Few escapes from the grind are available. Although many plants rotate workers every few hours between tasks on their team, those tasks usually aren’t different enough to ease the strain on muscles and tendons.
A few decades back, older or injured assembly workers could move into custodial and support jobs, while keeping the same wages and benefits. Now, the companies have largely outsourced those jobs to low-paying contractors, some under a UAW contract, some not. Today only a handful of coveted jobs offer lighter duties as quality checkers or test drivers.
A tight schedule at complicated assembly plants means potential chokepoints all over.
At a Michigan Stellantis plant, workers told us that delays to the whole line are already common because of backups in two departments: materials running and the “decking” stations that attach a chassis to car bodies.
Speaking anonymously, one assembly worker told us, “If there is a breakdown on the engine line, the cars won’t go past and get onto the axle line, which feeds the rest of the plant.”
These chokepoints may make plants vulnerable to slowdowns, whether due to understaffing or as a way that workers collectively express their frustration with their conditions or contract.
But workers at multiple plants also told us that managers were ramping up discipline, perhaps to intimidate workers before the contract fight. At a GM plant in Kansas City, one worker said bosses “are writing us up for everything” in recent months. Shop talk whirled about how one worker was suspended in June for arriving at their station just one minute past the required time, but still before the line started.
Shift to Electric
In many plants, Big Three plans to shift to majority electric vehicles this decade have created anxiety about job security. A 2022 study by three engineers at Carnegie Mellon estimates that labor demand will grow for producing EV powertrains, even with fewer parts involved than gas engines. Most experts expect that the number of US auto jobs will rise during this decade.
But the Big Three CEOs openly plan to build their batteries and EVs in new factories, often in the South, in joint ventures with nonunion companies. Such plants would not fall under each company’s master agreement with the UAW, so existing union workers would have no transfer rights.
A few major plants recently began doing EV assembly alongside gasoline cars, including GM Spring Hill and Stellantis Jefferson North in Detroit. But instead of using the combined lines to help longtime workers transition to an electric future, managers used the change to outsource work right under the same roof.
At Spring Hill, Shaw said, “paint, outside plastics, all the interior plastic molding, those departments have been outsourced and sold off, but it’s still work on-site. All of a sudden, when they started the EV work, that’s when they started with calling it GM Subsystems.”
GM Subsystems is a wholly owned subsidiary of GM — a legal shell to evade its main union contracts. Under a UAW contract signed last year, Subsystems workers start at $18.50 an hour, compared to about $31 an hour for first-tier workers under UAW’s GM master agreement.
UAW president Fain says the union’s contract fight this year will aim to bring all EV, battery, and subsidiary workers under the master agreements and their higher pay.
Past UAW contracts won some language against plant closures, but the Big Three snuck around those safeguards by renaming closures “idlings” or “unallocations” of work. With the industry shakeup accelerating this year, workers say they want a clear timeline for future work in their plants and stronger transfer guarantees to get work elsewhere if their plant closes.
Despite all the speedup and insecurity, longtime autoworkers generally choose to stick with their Big Three jobs because of the boons of past organizing: relatively high wages, decent health insurance, and solid pensions and retiree health care.
But for workers hired after the 2008 recession, pensions and retiree health care were wiped out completely by two-tier contracts. Now, as Deatherage said, “we have members with fifteen years who have no incentive to stay.”
As a result, workers said, turnover has climbed. In turn, the Big Three have ramped up hiring temps, who often work for multiple years while making just half the wage of full-time workers.
Across those cruel gaps, workers at each plant we spoke to have kept building bridges. They scorned tiers, but not the workers taking the jobs.
“There shouldn’t be any tiers,” said Johnson, from Ford Chicago. “Division brings about weakness, you know? It’s kind of hard to be working next to somebody doing the same job, putting in the same sweat, then getting a low wage.”