UAW strike continues; GM CEO says she hopes for quick resolution
The Detroit News September 16, 2023
DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — Workers from each of the Detroit Three automakers remained on the picket lines Friday, sharing stories of what the strike means to them, fielding visits from politicians, and soliciting honks from passing traffic.
They’re in the first day of what may be a long walkout. the United Auto Workers’ contract expired at midnight, and workers at selected plants were called to be the first to strike. Others may be added if negotiations stretch on.
The strike currently involves about 12,700 workers total, split between Ford Motor Co.’s Bronco plant in Wayne, Stellantis NV’s Jeep Wrangler plant in Toledo and General Motors’ Wentzville Assembly plant in Missouri. There is no bargaining scheduled for Friday and negotiations are set to resume Saturday. The union and the automakers still remain far apart on key issues such as wages, cost-of-living adjustments, the tier system and more.
Stacey LaRouche, press secretary for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said the governor’s office is staying “in close communications as negotiations for fair contracts continue.”
“The strength and vitality of Michigan’s economy depends in equal parts on our skilled and dedicated labor force, as well as the Big Three Automakers whose industry has long defined our state economy,” LaRouche said. “We’re hopeful all parties can come together during these negotiations to continue building on the momentum Michigan has seen these past four years and position us for even greater prosperity in the years ahead.”
GM CEO Mary Barra spoke on several morning shows Friday morning about the walkout and how it would affect operations. She told CNBC that even a single plant going down could have a ripple effect.
“Our GM team members who are representing have told me time and time again that job security is very important to them,” Barra said. “How you get job security is making sure you have beautifully designed cars, trucks and crossovers that people want to buy. We have those right now for all. All of our vehicles are in strong demand, both our (internal combustion engine) portfolio and our EV portfolios, so we got to get back to work so we don’t lose ground.”
But she also said that she believed the strike could be resolved “very quickly,” noting the “historic offer on the table” that includes 20% in wage increases over 4 1/2 years. Speaking to Fox Business, Barra said that “if our people really understand the details of it, they’re going to support it.”
Asking for more
Striking workers at the plants in Wayne and Toledo disagreed with Barra, saying they need more than the current offers from the automakers.
Outside the Toledo Assembly Complex, Tony Gardell, 61, of Oregon, Ohio, a UAW member for 40 years who’d never experienced a strike until now, said it was the right call.
“We took concessions for these companies, thinking we’d get them back eventually,” said Gardell, a team leader. “We never did. Now is a good time. UPS, the railroad workers, they all got stuff. Why not us?”
He hopes to see the return of cost-of-living adjustments, because it’s factored into his wage and boosts pay when working overtime, whereas lump sum bonuses do not. He’d also like to see the contract preserve vacation time instead of the company applying the time to retooling shutdowns. Previously, workers would receive supplemental unemployment benefits pay.
“It should be on their money,” he said, adding that any wage increases obtained are “just going to cover inflation.”
Another major concern among picketers was the compensation of supplemental employees, or temporary part-time workers.
“They start at $15.78,” said Kurt Kruger, 42, of Toledo, who works in quality. “I was a TPT for 12 years. I started at $18.93 per hour, and that was 22 years ago. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s bleak.”
Chanelle Hardy, 18, of Toledo hired into the Jeep plant in July as a supplemental worker. She says working with the union has been a highlight of her experience, and she smiled as she said working with her more experienced colleagues is “like working with your grandparents.”
But after her aunt, father and other relatives had worked the plant, coming in herself was a bit of a shock.
“Growing up, Jeep had the best jobs out there starting at $20 per hour,” Hardy said. “I come in, and it’s $15. This isn’t the Jeep I grew up on. It’s Jeep, but it’s like working Walmart or Chick-fil-A.”
Visits from politicians
In both Ohio and Michigan, state, local and national politicians stopped by the picket lines to speak with workers and media.
At the wages cited by workers like Hardy, Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken said, workers can get taxpayer-funded assistance from the county for food, health care and other necessities.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, drove to the Toledo picket line from Cleveland to show his support Friday morning. “County taxpayers are subsidizing these multimillion-dollar executive salaries, because they’re not paying the workers enough,” he said. “Then counties have to step up and help those workers a little bit.”
Workers never make back the money they lose while striking, Brown said. “So nobody wants to strike. These people are hardworking, they’re efficient, they’re productive.”
He criticized the automotive CEOs for making hundreds of times more than what their average employee does and not offering a “serious, legitimate proposal,” despite record profits. He noted how it takes workers eight years to reach the top pay. All three have proposed cutting that in half at the least.
“They’re not making up for what essentially were the sacrifices of the last 15 years,” Brown said. “They’ve got to come to the table making up for that.”
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from West Bloomfield, Michigan, stopped by the line at the Ford plant in Wayne a little after 8 a.m. to speak with strikers and offer doughnuts. He shook hands and spoke with those on the line before talking to media.
“This is how you get action,” he said. “This is how you get change. They’re making the sacrifice, they’re out here. But in the long run, we’ll be stronger as a country when the American middle class and these workers get fair wages.”
He said it was critically important that striking workers get improved wages, saying that workers sacrificed during the Great Recession in 2008.
“Now, profits are strong. CEOs and senior executives are making huge increases in their pay,” Peters said. “These workers deserve to have fair wages as well.”
Whenever UAW workers get wage increases, he said, wages rise across Metro Detroit and the state.
Dottie Lenard, 50, of Westland, said she was glad to see the senator join them at the picket line Friday for a little while. She said she and her union brothers and sisters are in this for the long haul.
“We’re going to hold our line and stay strong till the end because we deserve everything we are asking for,” she said. “I am hoping we get a fair contract no matter how long it takes.”
President Joe Biden spoke about the strike from Washington, urging the automakers to “go further” in their contract offers during remarks delivered from the White House on Friday. It’s his strongest statement yet in support of the union, which is demanding a 36% increase in wages, more if compounded. Like GM, Ford has offered 20% raises over 4 1/2 years and Stellantis has offered 17.5%.
On the line in Wayne several hours in, picketers marched at the Michigan Avenue entrances of Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant. Motorists driving by honked their horns as a show of support as TV news trucks filled the median of the street.
At one point, a semi-truck from Blue Water Trucking, based in Romeo, couldn’t get into a driveway at the plant because picketers kept crossing in front of it on the sidewalk. The truck waited a few minutes before ultimately driving away, to the applause of the strikers.
The Teamsters Union has pledged to support the UAW amid their strike and said they would not deliver vehicles or do other services for The Detroit Three until an agreement is reached. Unifor, the Canadian autoworkers union with their own contracts that expire at 11:59 p.m. Monday, also expressed support for the walkouts.
“Autoworkers in Canada and North America have a history of setting industry standards that extend past the Detroit Three,” President Lana Payne said in a statement addressed to Fain and UAW members. “What we win at the bargaining table raises the bar for all working people. The jobs of unionized autoworkers go well beyond just building cars — they build strong, vibrant, communities on both sides of the border.
Bruce Braumhower, president of Local 12 that represents workers at the Toledo plant, said he hopes the strike will be short. Employees of at least 10 suppliers and cleaning companies will have to go on unemployment because production has stopped. He, however, wasn’t surprised Jeep was chosen.
“The three plants they chose are the cash registers,” he said. “It’s the trucks and Jeeps.”
Gerken, a former Jeep plant worker himself, said it was an “honor” for the facility to be chosen as a strike target.
“We’re not militant, but we are resilient,” he said. “This is a Jeep town and a union town. They’re not going to break it.”
Inside the fence at the Toledo complex, rows of hundreds of Jeep Wranglers were visible from Chrysler Drive, awaiting delivery. Picketers were allowing semis through the gates.
Their vehicles were sprinkled across the grass outside the gates. They set up tables of drinks and snacks, camping chairs and porta potties. Stacks of wood were ready for barrel fires in the evening.
The strikers chanted at times, and encouraged drivers to honk. Most did. One enthusiastic supporter stood up through a moonroof, fist pumping the air in passing.
UAW Region 2B Director Dave Green said other locations were considered as targets, though he declined to specify which and share specifics of how the union made its determination. The strategy, he said, is meant to keep the companies off balance based on how they proceed with the talks, which resume Saturday.
“We don’t take it lightly. It’s a decision that keeps you up at night,” Green said. “It’s not just about autoworkers, but the working class. That’s the goal. If we don’t stand up and fight this, it’s not going to be a good tomorrow.”
If the strike lasts a long time, experts fear the ripples it will create in the economy. Michigan would be hit particularly hard, given how much of the state’s economy is in some way dependent on automotive manufacturing.
The idea of a so-called “one-state recession” isn’t impossible, said Glenn Stevens Jr., the executive director of MICHauto and vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives for the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“In the immediate hours, there’s very little change. As days progress and the supply chain grinds to a halt, decisions have to be made in the supply chain,” Stevens said. “How do we conserve cash? How do we weather a storm that we are just a pawn in? To do that, you have to look at what you can control in the short-term. There will probably be layoffs at the hourly and salary levels across the supply chain.”
Such effects aren’t likely to be immediate, he said, but will instead depend on the financial situation of individual businesses. Many of these companies have just started to bounce back from the way COVID-19 hurt them, and the potential for other financial distress could be devastating as they face the loss of some of their biggest business.
If the strike lasts long enough, the consequences could be dire for the industry. If major suppliers, or even smaller companies that are one of the only ones to provide a key part, face bankruptcy, that could be disastrous. And that’s before even considering the damage to the market share that the Detroit Three may face, Stevens said.
Business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have opposed a strike, and called upon the UAW on Friday to “call off the strike and get back to the negotiating table.”
Patrick Anderson, principal and CEO of Anderson Economic Group, said in an email that his company’s August analysis of the potential economic effect of the strike — which estimated the total economic loss after 10 days of a strike to be more $5 billion — “has proven to be prescient.”
“As of right now, we don’t know how many plants will end up being shuttered because of the announced strikes,” he wrote. “We do know, and we incorporated into our August analysis, the integrated nature of auto assembly in this industry and the cascading effects of a shutdown at an assembly plant. Thus, the economic damage will not be contained in three plants, or even 3 dozen plants.”
Detroit News staff writer Riley Beggin contributed to this story.
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