Since 1979, union auto workers have endured round after round of concessions. That era is over. On Wednesday, the 41st day of the union’s Stand Up Strike against the Big 3, Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain announced a deal with Ford. The contract gains are substantial. The union added the straw that broke the camel’s back this week when it hit General Motors’s and Stellantis’s two biggest moneymakers, SUV and truck assembly plants in Texas and Michigan, on Monday and Tuesday. Workers at Ford’s top cash cow, Kentucky Truck, had gone out October 11.
Only 13,000 of 146,000 auto workers at the Big 3 companies are on strike, so far. But others still on the job are turning up the heat by refusing voluntary overtime. At all three companies—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis—Auto Workers (UAW) members have told Labor Notes about overtime refusals. Many Big 3 plants are hugely dependent on overtime to make up for understaffing. Organizing on the shop floor and on Facebook, many auto workers unified so fast to do their part for the strike that they forced management to shut their plants for this entire past weekend. That followed advice from top UAW officers: that members in plants not yet striking had a right to refuse voluntary overtime.
Wayne, MI – Since 12 a.m. September 15, over 4000 UAW Local 900 auto workers have been on strike at the Ford Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne, which is located just outside of Detroit. Since the strike was announced, the UAW workers have received much media attention nation-wide, and many Detroit residents are excited about the kind of fight the UAW are leading and the implications a win could have for them. UAW local 900 workers and their supporters were in high spirits and the atmosphere on the ground is electric. There is a 24/7 picket running along a mile stretch in front of the massive assembly plant, with hundreds of picketers spread across several entry gates at any given time.
The automakers General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis are hurtling towards a showdown with United Auto Workers (UAW) as contract talks approach the September 14 strike deadline. As the Big 3 automakers scramble to make contingency plans, they are shining a spotlight on one specific part of the supply chain: the parts distribution centers that supply after-sales spare parts and accessories to dealerships. In August, reports leaked that Ford was preparing to deploy 1,200 non-union salaried employees to parts distribution centers (PDCs), or as Ford calls them, “high velocity centers.” The plan proved to be controversial. Some salaried employees raised concerns about safety—a non-union employee got into an accident during the 2021 John Deere strike.
After decades of accepting concessions demanded by the Big Three automakers, the United Auto Workers (UAW) is now making bold demands of its own in one of the most spirited contract campaigns in the union’s recent history. With 97% of the 150,000 UAW members at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler) voting to authorize a strike, and with the current collective bargaining agreements set to expire Thursday night, a work stoppage at any or all of the auto giants could begin Friday morning unless new four-year contracts are secured. The Big Three have made a combined nearly quarter trillion dollars in profits in North America over the past decade — including $21 billion in the first six months of 2023 alone.
Thirty-year-old Rick Savage was among the first workers hired at Ultium Cells’ 2.8-million-square-foot battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, in April 2022. “I heard about the battery plant and how it was going to be technologically superior to all other manufacturing companies,” Savage remembers thinking. “The future of the automotive industry is going to be electric.” Ultium Cells was a high-profile joint venture between U.S. automaker General Motors and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution. The Lordstown plant — billed as the largest battery plant of its kind anywhere in the country — was predicted to cost some $2.3 billion and generate more than 1,100 new jobs.
What is the mood at United Auto Workers headquarters today? Day drinking? Shopping for retirement condos? Dunning staff for money to try desperately to win the run-off? Shredding documents? Reformers in the United Auto Workers are jubilant as they seem set to make a historic change in the top leadership of their union, ending 70 years of one-party top-down rule. As mail-ballot votes were counted this week, it appeared very possible that the UAW Members United slate would eventually take all seven of the seats it contested, out of 14 on the union’s executive board. This is nothing short of an earthquake in one of the country’s largest manufacturing unions. The last time anyone was elected to the executive board in opposition to the ruling Administration Caucus was 34 years ago, when Jerry Tucker of the New Directions Movement became a regional director.
After more than three weeks on strike, mechanics in the Chicago area, members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Local 701, are being kept in the dark about negotiations and isolated from their brothers and sisters in the same local and the wider working class as a whole. The mechanics have shown their willingness to fight against the New Car Dealer Committee (NCDC) of Chicago and the car dealerships’ concession demands. On July 31, one day before the beginning of the strike, the mechanics voted down the NCDC’s contract proposal by 99 percent and voted by 97 percent to strike. But throughout the past month, the IAM leadership has isolated the strike and worked on behalf of the NCDC as conscious strikebreakers to an even greater extent than during the last strike in 2017, which lasted for seven weeks.
Just two days after reopening its U.S. and Canadian plants – and a day before hosting a visit by President Donald Trump – Ford briefly was forced to shutter two assembly lines when multiple workers were found to be suffering COVID-19 infections. Crews immediately went to work at the factories in Chicago and Dearborn, Michigan, to disinfect the two lines but when Dearborn workers on the night shift returned Wednesday evening they initially refused to man their stations, TheDetroitBureau.com confirmed, protesting what some described as unsafe conditions. A video from the plant showed employees milling in the aisles at the Dearborn facility while managers tried to coax them back to their stations. One worker told TheDetroitBureau.com that they were told they could be fired if the protest continued. That has not been independently verified.
Ford Motors CEO Jim Farley said during a recent conference call, “The auto industry is [the U.S.] economic engine. Restarting the entire auto ecosystem is how we restart the economy.” (New York Times, May 18) But Farley has it wrong. It’s the 400,000 production workers at the Detroit Three automakers, Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler (FCA), who resume working today around the world who will have the final say. After a series of wildcat strikes across the industry in mid-March protesting unsafe working conditions in close quarters and lack of protective equipment, the workers are going back with some — but not enough — protection. Their temperatures with be taken after reporting to work each day, and masks, gloves and eye protection are required.
“I think the bottom line is the politicians and companies don’t care and made a decision to get auto manufacturing going again. While the union is just playing their part and preaching safety protocols, there will be a human cost from this. Everyone knows that.” These remarks by a worker at the General Motors Fort Wayne Assembly plant express a growing feeling among autoworkers that they must take a stand to oppose the premature reopening of auto plants in North America. The Detroit automakers, with the full support of the United Auto Workers, are set to begin ramping up assembly lines Monday in the US, Canada and Mexico. Several Japanese and German automakers have already started producing cars.