Detroit Auto Workers on Strike Looking for Higher Wages

On Friday, Sept. 15, nearly 1 of every 10 Auto Workers across the country went on strike in an apparent attempt to pressure the Big 3 automakers, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (formerly Chrylsler), into raising wages and other benefits. Only three factories were initially on strike: the Toledo Jeep complex, the GM midsize Truck factory in Wentzville, MO, and the Ford Bronco plant in Wayne, MI. These factories combined have over 13,000 autoworkers.

This comes at a time when automakers are seeing record profits. In 2022, Stellantis made $17.9 billion, GM made another $20.9 billion, and Ford made the most with a profit of $23.6 billion. This profit is also in lock step with the costly change of transitioning from gas-run engines to electric and eco-friendly vehicles. 

This is the first time in history that the United Auto Workers Union is striking against all of the Big 3 simultaneously.

At the forefront of this strike is Shawn Fain, who has been President for only six months. Fain has been in the UAW for 29 years now, and his grandfather was a part of the first major strike at Jeep in 1937. He keeps his grandfather’s pay stubs in his wallet as a reminder of his roots.

Photo credit: Michael Wayland, CNBC

Fain has been named by many as the right man for the job given his passion and fire for his union workers. He is the first ever democratically elected UAW President, voted on by Union members. Previously the UAW presidents were chosen by their predecessor on their way out the door. This created a corrupt culture of bribery and corruption that led to two former presidents going to jail. This was followed with a decline in membership and taint to the UAW’s public image.

So what does the UAW want? Fain’s demands include the following:

  • 36% increase in pay within the next four years
  • Access to jobs at new electric vehicle plants
  • Cost of living raises
  • End of varying tiers of pay based on factory job
  • 32-hour work week at 40 hours of pay
  • Restoration of pension style benefits for new hires as opposed to only 401(k) options
  • Higher pension rates

Right now, top-level factory employees at all three companies can make up to $32 an hour. With overtime and profit sharing policies, your average auto factory worker makes $78K a year. It is to note that in 2007, in anticipation of and throughout the recession, the UAW agreed to give up cost of living raises, implement a tier system off of factory-based jobs, and use a 401(k)-style retirement plan as opposed to the traditional pension route. These concessions were all in an attempt to save the Big 3 from bankruptcy and keep as many workers employed as possible. Over 15 years later, Fain and the UAW want those concessions back especially following the COVID-19 pandemic when auto workers sacrificed a lot in order to keep the Big 3 afloat.

“We didn’t have a problem coming in during COVID, being essential workers and making them big profits,” Chris Hoisington told CNBC. Hoisington has worked at the Toledo Jeep plant since 2001. “We’ve sacrificed a lot.”

Support was the strongest in Detroit. “For all the years that I’ve worked here, it’s never been this strong,” said Anthony Dobbins, a 27-year-old autoworker, early Friday morning while picketing the Ford plant in Michigan. “This is going to make history right here because we are trying to get what we deserve…we have to work seven days, overtime, just to make ends meet.”

Notable figures such as Michigan Senator Gary Peters and Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman were seen picketing with Autoworkers in Detroit. Joe Biden also sent his verbal support to the strikers as well as sending acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su and advisor Gene Sperling.

In response to the ongoing strikes, Ford CEO Jim Farley was bombarded with questions at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit. He told CNBC, “We’ve never seen anything like this. It is very frustrating.”

GM’s President Mary Barra echoed this sentiment, “I’m extremely frustrated and disappointed. We don’t need to be on strike right now.” GM made a formal statement saying “It’s now clear that the U.A.W. leadership has always intended to cause monthslong disruption, regardless of the harm it causes to its members and their communities.”

Since the initial strike, Ford has started negotiations with the UAW and progress has been made. Union efforts have since shifted towards over 38 parts suppliers and factories associated with Stellantis and General Motors, where a walkout took place on Friday, Sep. 22 at noon. “We will shut down parts distribution centers until those two companies come to their senses and come to the bargaining table,” Fain said. “To be clear, we are not done at Ford. We have serious issues to work through, but we do want to recognize that Ford is serious about reaching a deal.” The strikers are each getting paid $500 a week from the UAW’s $825 million strike budget until an agreement is reached.

As the 2024 election looms overhead, labor agreements and strikes will be a key point in debates, especially since Joe Biden claims to be the most union-friendly president in history. After all, the epicenter of the strikes is blue collar, rust-belt states like Ohio and Michigan, who are historically slightly left-leaning swing states. This is yet another example of the growing divide between blue-collar versus billionaire and labor versus big business. 

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