Last Friday, some five thousand United Auto Workers (UAW) at thirty-eight after-market parts distribution centers (PDCs) across General Motors (GM) and Stellantis joined the escalating “Stand-Up Strike.” Even with the scabs GM has deployed, the dealerships that receive parts from these PDCs will soon be feeling the inventory pinch for everything from replacement bumpers to Jeep handlebars. With parts shortages come irate customers, blaming dealerships for the supply snarls caused by the Big Three automakers. (Today, some seven thousand workers joined the picket lines, bringing the total of striking workers up to twenty-five thousand.)
When it comes to the impact of the strike on customers, auto dealerships are where the rubber meets the road. Profit margins from selling parts and performing repairs have historically been higher than from vehicle sales. During the GM strike in 2019, some frustrated customers who needed repairs vowed to never buy a GM car again, while others vented their anger at workers.
This makes dealerships an important site to engage the public and amplify the message of the workers: it is the Big Three, not the workers, who are responsible for parts shortages and delayed repairs.
A Call to Canvass
For this reason, the UAW is now calling on community supporters to organize small teams of five to ten people to canvass dealerships that sell and repair Big Three cars. On Tuesday, the union issued a canvassing tool kit with instructions, flyers, press releases, and talking points.
The flyers reiterate that autoworkers are simply asking for their fair share of the sky-high profits, and ask customers to put pressure on the Big Three to settle the contract. One flyer explicitly addresses why car repairs may be taking longer.
The union is making it clear that the goal of the canvasses is to educate the public about the strike, not to promote a boycott or do anything that might be construed as “coercive” of customers, such as blocking entrances.
A boycott or picket by the UAW of a secondary business not being struck directly would be illegal under the 1947 anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. Most dealerships constitute a secondary business, as they are not directly owned by the Big Three.
The UAW’s “DO’s and DON’Ts” instructions guide says: “We are standing up for UAW members in their historic fight for justice at the Big Three. We are NOT picketing auto dealerships. We are telling the public about the fight to make things right at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.”
While the union is still emphasizing the importance of standing with strikers on their picket lines, which are in twenty states, the dealerships offer an even more geographically widespread opportunity for community support. For instance, there are at least 130 dealerships that service Stellantis vehicles in the New York City area alone.
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has already been sending members to picket lines and is now preparing to send them to canvass dealerships as well.
The Teamsters have walked picket lines in solidarity with the UAW. “A group of us Local 804 Teamsters joined the picket line at the Tappan Parts Distribution Center in the Hudson Valley,” said Anthony Rosario, a member of the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a DSA member, former UPSer, and now an organizer from Local 804 in New York City. “The next day one of our brothers showed up with a Teamster semi from Local 294 in Albany.
“Solidarity is everything. The only way we are going to be able to show corporations that they cannot make wealth off the backs of the workers is to stand up now. Everyone should be out there supporting them.”
Big Three Squeeze Dealers — and Their Workers
In nearly all states, there is heavy regulation of how cars are sold, and seventeen states ban direct sales of vehicles from the manufacturer. These anti-monopoly measures (designed to benefit dealerships) mean that instead of owning dealerships, the Big Three grant them franchises.
Since manufacturers would no doubt prefer to sell directly to customers — witness Tesla’s semisuccessful circumvention of dealers and Ford’s stated desire to follow suit with electric vehicle sales — the relationship between the Big Three and dealerships can be tense.
Brian Schneck, president of UAW Local 259, characterizes it as a “cold war” where each side is trying to dodge costs and squeeze as much profit out of the arrangement as possible.
Schneck’s local represents close to 1,500 hourly repair technicians at dealerships on Long Island and in the New York City area, including twenty-three dealerships that service GM and Stellantis vehicles. For the most part, however, the UAW has not organized dealership workers.
These workers are the ones who often get left behind in the cold war. For instance, GM has a cap on the number of hours it compensates dealers for repair work. So long as the vehicle warranty is in effect, technicians get paid fixed piece rates, regardless of how long the repair takes.
Last year, the UAW pushed the state of New York to pass legislation that would require vehicle manufacturers to fully compensate dealerships for warranty service agreements. The bill passed in the State Assembly, but due to lobbying from GM — which threatened to close down the Tonawanda Engine Plant in the Buffalo area should the bill pass — it stalled in the State Senate.
Dealership owners themselves are far from being friends of labor. They lean very rich and very conservative, and have only gotten richer since the pandemic as vehicle inventory dipped and prices went up. Their lobbying organization, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), is a powerful force in right-wing politics.
That being said, Schneck says, “the Big Three are the ones jacking up the prices, leading dealerships to not be able to sell like they want to.”
Customers Lose Out Too
The other group that gets the short end of the stick, of course, is customers.
A chart created by the UAW shows that while Big Three vehicle prices have gone up 34 percent in the last four years, the top wage rate has only gone up 6 percent. Moreover, the labor cost per vehicle is only 4 to 5 percent.
The goal of canvassing dealerships is to get customers to understand that their money is going to fatten Big Three profits and line the pockets of CEOs and shareholders, instead of the workers who build and repair their vehicles.
“UAW workers and leadership have been clear that this strike is not only about economic demands, it’s also about building power for all working people,” says Gabriel Strauss, a member of the New York City chapter of DSA who is organizing a canvass this weekend. “The dealership canvasses are an opportunity to spread this message to the public, while also turning up the pressure on the Big Three by going to their customers.”