Indianapolis UAW Workers Got Rid of Tiers With a Strike Threat

At Allison Transmission in Indianapolis, autoworkers with the UAW leveraged a credible strike threat to eliminate wage and benefit tiers. It’s a sign of growing militancy among the United Auto Workers.

UAW members working at Allison Transmission in Indianapolis threatened to strike to get rid of tiers. (Jeff Kowalsky / AFP via Getty Images)

Fifteen hundred autoworkers in Indianapolis made their New Year’s resolution public: unless Allison Transmission agreed to eliminate tiers in wages, benefits, shift premiums, and holidays, they would hit the bricks.

“The fight plan throughout negotiations was ending tiers,” said Phil Shupe, a ten-year assembler on tier two and bargaining committee member. “We weren’t going to accept anything from the company that had any more division. We stood firm that we all needed to be equal.”

Workers at Allison make commercial heavy-duty automatic transmissions for fire trucks, school buses, and tanks, as well as hybrid propulsion systems.

United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 933 members there hadn’t struck since the 1970s. But in December, they rejected Allison’s offer by 96 percent.

“The company realized this time around that we weren’t joking,” said Darrin Nelson, an eighteen-year employee and a shop committeeperson in skilled trades. “We were walking — making it very clear it was either put up or shut up.”

The company put up a four-year contract, compared to the last six-year contract term. Workers clinched a contract in the nick of time — by presenting a clear picture of what would happen if they walked.

Allison could have lost millions a day in revenue, taken a reputational hit, and lost customers, said Shupe. And even if it tried bringing in scabs, the truck drivers who deliver transmissions to customers wouldn’t cross the picket line. Some were Teamsters; others at Ryder Logistics were fellow UAW Local 933 members.

“We let them know we meant business,” said Shupe.

Workers ratified their new contract by 82 percent on January 16. It hikes starting wages from $14.72 to $20 an hour and increases some workers’ earnings by 150 percent, and eliminates most aspects of the tiers (see box for details).

Do Away With Tiers

Allison’s customers include the Pentagon, Volkswagen’s subsidiary Traton SE, Mercedes-Benz Group AG, and Paccar, a large manufacturer of commercial trucks. These contracts have made big profits for Allison’s shareholders.

Coming off the UAW’s lucrative contract wins at the Big Three automakers, Allison workers thought it was their turn. They wanted to seize the momentum and win their share of the pie, too.

“We saw that if our CEO was making what their CEOs were making even at a smaller company, we needed to demand more money,” said Monica Nelson, a seventeen-year job setter, a person who checks the measurements on the machines making sure everything is up to spec. “They [the Big Three] did away with the tiers, we needed to do away with the tiers.”

Allison Transmission had raked in $6 billion in profits in the last decade, and more than half a billion in the first three quarters of 2023, according to the UAW. CEO David Graziosi made $9.3 million in 2022, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Meanwhile, company managers were stingy about replacing broken microwaves.

Ahead of the contract expiration, managers started hauling workers into captive-audience meetings to surface any complaints. At one of these meetings, a worker raised the issue of a broken microwave in the break room.

The manager’s answer was, “I’ll have somebody go out there and look at it, but we are not replacing any broken microwave,” recalled Local 933 vice president Andy Davis, who works on the assembly line. “A billion-dollar company is going to be that petty! We work long hours. So you’re talking about somebody not even being able to microwave a lunch.”

Davis, with fourteen years on the job, didn’t expect any better from company honchos. “But I was really happy to see my union brothers and sisters hear the manager’s response,” he said, “so they could see who we’re dealing with.”

Chairs Removed

The company had proposed a wage opener mid-contract last February. In a tight labor market, it was having a hard time hiring at $14.72. “People could earn better money at a car wash,” said Davis.

But workers rejected the reopener, near the end of a six-year contract. “If the contract is no longer viable, then let’s start negotiations now,” said Davis. “We’ve got nine months till the contract runs out anyways. Instead of just picking and choosing what you want to do as a company, why don’t we sit down and have an honest discussion about what could benefit everyone?”

Apparently in retaliation, though on the pretext of safety, the company went around the factory floor removing all the chairs — a salve to workers’ sore feet from standing for ten to twelve hours.

“After we rejected the wage proposal by vote, the supervisors formed a pack,” said Davis. “They moved from department to department, grabbing all of our chairs, putting them on a fork truck and taking them out — laughing and being jerks about it.”

Red T-Shirt Wednesday

As the November contract expiration neared, workers began organizing across divisions — electing a new shop committee, more representative of the various tiers.

George Freeman, bargaining chair, joked when sitting across from company negotiators that they’d bring in hard-charging, Indiana-native UAW president Shawn Fain. The threat threw management off-balance. “They want us to know they are in charge — master and servant,” said Freeman.

But their savior wasn’t Fain, even though workers credited the international for providing legal and communications support. The organization that they built across the plant was the key to their success.

Workers started holding gate meetings to update members on the progress in negotiations, answer questions, and make sure people were united behind the demand to end tiers.

In the last round of negotiations, the company had thrown money around in a signing bonus just before the holidays to entice workers into voting yes for a six-year contract. Monica Nelson wanted to make sure her coworkers didn’t fall for that old trick again.

“They’re offering you $10,000 up front, but you’re locking in on this six-year contract,” she said about the company’s past sign-on bonus. “You need to vote it down and ask for more money on the hour. Because if you get more money on the hour, you can make that $10,000 they gave you in two months.”

The big task was building solidarity after the company had successfully used solidarity-wrecking tiers to keep workers divided. “We had to get everybody on board,” said Nelson. “We had to start getting people to be more unified. If they throw out four people, you don’t need to take the overtime. Because if you’re taking the overtime, you’re basically proving we don’t need those four people that they threw out whose jobs were protected by contract language.”

Nelson had these conversations on the floor because she was a floater. But one person couldn’t reach everybody. Monica Nelson and Davis began organizing the meetings outside the plant gates on “red T-shirt Wednesdays,” once every two weeks. The instructions were simple: “Wednesday, 5 p.m. break, front gate, bring your questions, write them down, and we’ll answer them.”

“It started with five to seven people, then it turned into thirty people,” Nelson said. “And when it got to forty people, the shop committee would come out, with the chairman.” Eventually, they expanded the meetings to a second shift and different plants in the factory complex. They also handed out flyers with charts showing the CEO pay.

New Direction

For Darrin Nelson, the change was long overdue. He had attended the UAW convention in 2014 as an alternate delegate and concluded it was a big con.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is all for show, because everything’s already predetermined,’” he said. “Nobody has a chance to run for any of these positions, because the convention was set up for the caucus that’s in power to always win.”

So when reformers organized for one-member, one-vote elections in 2021, Nelson threw himself into the project. “The direction that we’ve been going the last fifteen, twenty years has been absolutely brutal for the membership,” he said. “The only way that things are going to change, from the top down to the local levels, is if we get one-member, one-vote to pass and let the membership as a whole decide on who they want as their elected officials.

“At the end of the day, it’s the results. If you make gains and go in the right direction, you show the membership that things are possible. We got a new leadership who says, ‘Enough is enough, we’re gonna walk.’ Because that’s the only tool that you have to get them to the table to get the things that you deserve.”