“NO DEALS, NO WHEELS!” United Auto Workers (UAW) union members yelled while walking the picket line out front of Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, where The Blue Oval builds its Rangers and hot-selling Broncos. “BRING BACK C.O.L.A!” they continued. “NO CONTRACT, NO WORK!” I heard blaring from a megaphone just a few feet from where I stood. “HOW MANY TIERS WE WANT?” a worker yelled, only to be followed by a cry from the rest of the workers who had just started their noon strike-shift: “NO TIERS!” It was a gray, gloomy, temperate day, and the seriousness of the atmosphere was palpable. Thousands of workers were on strike, fighting for higher wages, an end to a “tier-system” that they feel is unfair, and much more. Here’s what it was like talking with those workers.
I’ll begin by saying that I’m really not that well-versed when it comes to labor issues like this one, nor do I view one side as good and one side as bad. To me, this is all a byproduct of a system that aims to maximize shareholder value and remain competitive with non-unionized shops like Tesla and Toyota. As a result of these goals, automakers have incentive to minimize expenses, and one consistent expense is labor. Still, like anyone negotiating a salary for a job only they can work, the UAW is coming to the bargaining table to fight against those tendencies inherent to our system. Is the UAW asking for too much, with its initial 40 percent pay increase (over four years) demand? Some people think so, while others think it’s fair given how much CEO pay has risen in a similar period. I’m not here to tell you what I think, I’m just here to tell you what I learned from union workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant.
I talked with UAW spokesperson Jim McNeil just outside of the assembly plant. He was extremely gracious, welcoming me and — despite all the yelling and cheering around us — answering my questions with patience.
He mentioned that one of the key things the Union is fighting against is the tier system. He broke it down for me:
- Tier 1: Pre-2007 full-time employees. These folks got a pension and retiree healthcare.
- Tier 2: Post-2007 full-time employees. These folks have to make do with a 401K, not a pension plan. These folks, when hired, don’t reach a top pay bracket for eight years, and could do the same work alongside a more senior peer while being paid significantly less. Most employees, McNeil told me, fall into this Tier 2 bracket, and therefore lack retirement security.
- Tier 3: “Temp” workers. They make $15.78 an hour at Stellantis and $16.20 at Ford, McNeil told me. This is too low, he believes, especially given that “temp” workers could remain “temp” for years. This type of job, McNeil told me, is not secure, and does not include profit sharing.
McNeil also pointed out that, around 2008, when both Chrysler and GM went into bankruptcy and Ford staved it off by smartly getting loans before they became impossible to get, the UAW made significant sacrifices. Now that the Big Three are doing so well financially, the UAW wants a piece of the pie.
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I later chatted with another worker, named Marlin, who said about the UAW’s strategy for securing better pay and benefits: “They got the money, but we have the power,” with “they” being automaker leadership. He said the workers aren’t asking for millions, just a living wage, which should be possible given that automakers have been raking in profits by “price-gouging” these last couple of years. Marlin also mentioned the UAW’s desire for cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), as “wages that worked a few years ago just don’t work [today].”
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There’s Shawn Fournier, a paint shop worker at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, in the video above. I’d noticed him picketing right there on Michigan Avenue in front of the Bronco/Ranger plant, eliciting hundreds of loud honks from supportive drivers who passed by. He talks about Tier 1 “legacy workers,” and how it took him — an “in-progression” employee — almost a decade to reach the same pay tier as a legacy worker. The end of this system; a cost of living adjustment; and a pay hike in general, especially during this time of relative prosperity for automakers and especially after the UAW’s sacrifices during the bankruptcy era — these are what the UAW is currently fighting for.
As for their statements, here’s what Ford had to say on Thursday:
DEARBORN, Mich., Sept. 14, 2023 – At 8 p.m. this evening at Solidarity House in Detroit, the United Auto Workers presented its first substantive counterproposal to Ford a few hours from the expiration of the current four-year collective bargain agreement.
On the key economic issues that matter most to our UAW-represented employees, Ford has submitted four proposals to the UAW since Aug. 29. The last offer Ford submitted was historically generous, with large wage increases, cost of living adjustments, more paid time off, additional retirement contributions and more.
Unfortunately, the UAW’s counterproposal tonight showed little movement from the union’s initial demands submitted Aug. 3. If implemented, the proposal would more than double Ford’s current UAW-related labor costs, which are already significantly higher than the labor costs of Tesla, Toyota and other foreign-owned automakers in the United States that utilize non-union-represented labor.
The union made clear that unless we agreed to its unsustainable terms, it plans a work stoppage at 11:59 p.m. eastern. Ford has bargained in good faith in an effort to avoid a strike, which could have wide-ranging consequences for our business and the economy. It also impacts the very 57,000 UAW-Ford workers we are trying to reward with this contract. Our hourly employees would take home nearly 60% less on average with UAW strike pay than they would from working. And without vehicles in production, the profit-sharing checks that UAW workers could expect to receive early next year will also be decimated by a significant strike.
Ford remains absolutely committed to reaching an agreement that rewards our employees and protects Ford’s ability to invest in the future as we move through industry-wide transformation.
Here’s GM‘s statement from Friday:
September 15: GM Statement on UAW Strike
The UAW has informed GM that they are on strike at Wentzville Assembly in Missouri as of 11:59 p.m. on Thurs, Sept. 14. We are disappointed by the UAW leadership’s actions, despite the unprecedented economic package GM put on the table, including historic wage increases and manufacturing commitments. We will continue to bargain in good faith with the union to reach an agreement as quickly as possible for the benefit of our team members, customers, suppliers and communities across the U.S. In the meantime, our priority is the safety of our workforce.
And, while I can’t find Stellantis’s official statement on its website, here’s a statement that Reuters posted a few days ago:
“We are extremely disappointed by the UAW leadership’s refusal to engage in a responsible manner to reach a fair agreement in the best interest of our employees, their families and our customers. We immediately put the Company in contingency mode and will take all the appropriate structural decisions to protect our North American operations and the Company.”
It’s an unprecedented strike in which the UAW is simultaneously picketing all three Big Three automakers. And while the strike only affects GM’s Wentzville Colorado/Canyon mid-size truck plant, Stellantis’s Toledo, Ohio Jeep Gladiator/Wrangler plant, and Ford’s Michigan Assembly Ford Ranger/Bronco plant, the UAW could decide to strike at even more locations. And if that continues on long-term, that could be devastating for automakers and workers alike.
Hopefully, there’s a resolution soon.