Tick, tock. At midnight the clock ran out, and autoworkers massed on picket lines.
The first-ever simultaneous strike at the Big Three automakers — General Motors (GM), Ford, and Stellantis — started September 15 with thirteen thousand workers walking out of three assembly plants in Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri. There are 146,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) members at the Big Three.
The UAW is calling its strategy the “stand-up strike,” a nod to the Flint sit-down strike of 1936–1937 that helped establish the union.
The shot across the bow came two hours shy of midnight via a very short Facebook Live video where UAW president Shawn Fain shared the strike targets: Stellantis’s Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio; GM’s Wentzville Assembly Center, near St Louis in Missouri; and the final assembly and paint departments at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, west of Detroit. These plants make highly profitable full-sized SUVs and trucks, including the Jeep Wrangler, Chevy Colorado, and Ford Bronco.
Fain laid out the union’s escalation strategy on Wednesday. The union will target a few plants at first, letting the Big Three know the union is willing to inflict financial pain.
The idea is to keep the companies guessing. If they don’t move on the union’s demands, more pain will be applied — but the companies won’t be able to predict where.
“An all-out strike is still a possibility,” Fain said.
On Pins and Needles
Some members who’d been expecting an all-out strike right away were disappointed. On Thursday, some at Toledo Assembly wore black in mourning. But as the deadline approached, regional director Dave Green was seen in town and people’s spirits were buoyed as it became apparent that their plant would be one of the strike sites.
A few hours before the deadline, Chris Falzone, working the evening shift at the Toledo Assembly plant, reported the scene inside. “Corporate management is walking the floor, along with all the first- and second-shift management, in case of a strike,” he said. “What I’m hearing from paint shop is that they are emptying the paint department in the Gladiator and Wrangler side in case of a strike.” He was walking the floor distributing leaflets about what happens if they continue to operate under an expired contract at midnight.
Meanwhile day-shift workers like Auston Gore, a twelve-year veteran on the assembly line and a strike captain, were waiting at home. “We’re all waiting on pins and needles,” Gore said. “Normally, I’d be going to bed right now. But I’m staying up late.”
Workers at Toledo Assembly have been pinning their hopes on being selected to strike, because they expect that management will resort to a campaign of terror against the workers who stay on the shop floor.
“The company puts up a facade that they care about their employees, telling us that we are one big family,” said Gore. “Meanwhile, they’re going to have their supervisors walking around dinging us for the tiniest stuff if we are working under an expired contract. We feel like unprotected prey.”
Everyone at Michigan Assembly was tuned in to Fain’s 10 p.m. livestream, Brandon Szcesniak reported, and screamed when they heard their plant named. His shift was scheduled to go until 2:30 a.m., but management told everyone to leave at 11 p.m.
Szcesniak is twenty-one and has been working at the plant since he got out of high school. He makes $19.10 an hour. He’d like to have a family, but since it takes eight years to get to top pay, he’d be almost thirty.
He believes a strike is needed. “People are angry,” he said. “It’s like a revolving door. it’s not a career anymore, it’s a job. They want us to buy Fords, but how can we buy a Ford on this pay?”
For those who won’t be striking just yet, the union was quick to inform members of their rights when working under an expired contract. In almost all matters the companies are required to maintain the status quo; for instance, just cause protections still apply. An exception: without a no-strike clause in effect, workers may strike at any time, and the companies may also lock them out.
The guidance left many workers questioning how far they could push these rights. At the Local 2250 hall, next to GM Wentzville, members lined up with questions for officers yesterday, leading officers to close the hall to the press.
“We all planned to go into work tonight,” said Lincoln Fegley, a picket captain on the night shift at Wentzville. “But we were mentally and physically ready to walk out if the call came.”
Whether or not they struck, locals at some major plants showed they planned to put pressure on management. At GM Spring Hill, in Tennessee, “our shop chairman said that he didn’t want anybody to accept overtime after the deadline,” said longtime production worker Kenneth Larew. “It’s been at least fifteen years since local leaders coordinated No Overtime.”
Moves like that could be a serious blow for many Big Three plants, which have come to rely on extensive overtime as their turnover rate has climbed through the years of tiers and falling real wages.
After decades of a go-along union that hollowed out wages and working conditions, the UAW under newly elected reform leadership has put forward bold demands.
The union is demanding a 40 percent wage boost and to end the tiers. Production workers hired since 2007 are on a permanent lower track where they forgo pensions and retiree health benefits. There are also multiple lower wage tiers, such as the workers in parts distribution centers and many of those making components for electric vehicles.
Workers are also demanding a shorter workweek, the restoration of cost-of-living raises pegged to inflation, and the conversion of an even lower tier of so-called temporary workers — who can remain in that category for years — into permanent employees after ninety days.
And as the auto industry undergoes seismic shifts in the transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles, workers are demanding job security: the right to strike over plant closures, and a Working Family Protection Program where laid-off workers could get paid to do community service.
In response to union pressure, all three companies have offered to halve the time it takes full-time seniority workers to reach top pay, from eight years to four. That’s still well shy of the union’s proposal: a ninety-day progression to top rate.
Ford has proposed to convert all current temps to full-time after ninety days — but not future temps. GM and Stellantis have proposed raising the minimum wage for temps to $20 an hour, up from the current $16.67 and $15.68, respectively, but Stellantis has not proposed a path to full-time employment for temps; at GM they are currently supposed to be converted after two years, but that’s often not the reality.
The companies have also proposed increases ranging from 17.5 percent to 20 percent over four years. But they’ve made no movement on the union’s job security proposals.
“Altogether, we are seeing movement from the companies,” Fain said. “But they are still not willing to agree to the kinds of raises that will make up for inflation on top of decades of falling wages. And their proposals don’t reflect the massive profits we’ve generated for these companies.”
The union’s escalating strategy in this round of negotiations is a departure from 2019, when forty-six thousand workers struck GM for forty days. The company’s bottom line took a $3.6 billion hit, but workers felt little was gained. The leaders of the union at that time were ready to settle cheap.
This time, the union leadership looks much different and has set its sights higher. Fain and other reformers won office on promises of greater transparency and militancy, in the union’s first-ever direct election for top posts. Fain ran as part of the Members United slate, backed by the reform movement Unite All Workers for Democracy. He took office in March.
Since negotiations began in July, the newly elected reform leaders of the UAW have thrown the automakers off balance with an aggressive and very public approach to negotiations, symbolized by Fain’s refusal to engage in the traditional handshake ceremony with company leaders to kick off bargaining; instead, he went out to greet members at the plant gates.
“I’ll tell you this, I’m at peace with a decision to strike if we have to, because I know that we’re on the right side of this battle,” Fain told more than thirty thousand viewers on Facebook Live Wednesday. “It’s a battle of the working class against the rich; the haves versus the have-nots; the billionaire class against everybody else.”
His talk melded sports analogies, verses from scripture, and precepts from the traditions of class struggle unionism.
“For the last forty years, the billionaire class has been taking everything and leaving everybody else to fight for the scraps,” Fain said. “We are not the problem. Corporate greed is the problem.”
The union will hold an afternoon rally today in Detroit with Senator Bernie Sanders. “The UAW members [are] fighting not only for themselves but against a corporate culture of arrogance, cruelty, and selfishness causing massive and unnecessary pain for the majority of working families throughout the country,” Sanders wrote in a Guardian op-ed this week.
Striking workers will get $500 per week strike pay — raised last year from $275 — paid from the union’s $825 million strike fund. The union has also said it will pay strikers’ health insurance premiums.
Teamster carhaulers who deliver vehicles for the Big Three have vowed to refuse to deliver to dealerships during the strike. “We are 100 percent supportive of UAW workers and Shawn Fain’s positions,” Kevin Moore, president of Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit, told the Detroit Free Press. “Our Teamsters will not cross strike lines.”