Auto Workers Fight Back After ‘Getting Screwed’ by Detroit Three

By Kyle Kaminski

September 20, 2023

Midwesterners are on the frontlines of the United Auto Workers union’s battle for better wages and benefits as the strike against the Detroit Three heads into its second week.

WAYNE, Michigan—Charles Wade thought he earned a ticket to the middle class when was first hired at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne County. Instead, two decades of “getting screwed over by the company” have only pushed him and his family much closer to poverty, he said.

“I got into this job in 1999 thinking I could join the middle class and actually be able to take my kids on vacations and put them through college,” Wade said as he picketed outside the Ford factory on Tuesday. “But over the last 20 years, they’ve taken it all away. Now, it’s just a job.”

Wade isn’t alone. 

Nearly one in 10 of America’s unionized auto workers went on strike this month against the nation’s biggest automakers—General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis—in search of better wages and benefits amid an era of soaring profits and as the industry transitions to electric vehicles.

The strikes are limited (for now) to about 13,000 employees at three factories—including at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, just north of the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. 

Wade was among hundreds of workers on the picket line.

“It’s time to get what we deserve,” he said. “Automakers need to pay attention to the workers. We build their cars. We buy their cars. It’s time they treat us like the family they say we are.”

Auto workers picket outside Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne County. (The ‘Gander Newsroom/Kyle Kaminski)

By striking simultaneously at all three companies for the first time, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union is trying to inflict a new kind of pain on the Detroit Three amid the contract negotiations—and claw back the pay and benefits that workers gave up in recent decades.

“We’re not going to keep waiting around forever while they drag this out … and we’re not messing around,” UAW President Shawn Fain said this week, noting more workers at other factories would join the strike Friday unless there was “serious progress” in negotiations. 

Rather than meet the workers’ demands, however, the companies have begun to lay off workers at other factories, arguing that the strike is disrupting supply chains. 

A Fair Share

Workers on the picket line told The ‘Gander they feel neglected by Ford—especially as the company’s profit margins have soared in recent years and worker wages have kept stagnant.

“We come here everyday and break our bodies to build their cars and make them all this money,” Kristen Fitch said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect to be treated fairly in return.”

Over the past decade, the Detroit Three have emerged as robust profit-makers. They’ve collectively posted a net income of $164 billion—with about $20 billion of it from this year alone. The CEOs of all three major automakers also earn more than $21 million per year.

Meanwhile, the workers who build the vehicles say their average pay—which currently amounts to about $75,000 a year—has only climbed about 6% over the last four years. Due to inflation, Michigan auto workers say their wages have less buying power than they did 20 years ago. 

To help keep pace with rising corporate salaries, the union is asking for 36% general pay raises for its workers over four years—which would reportedly bring starting salaries to about $23 an hour and increase the hourly wages for top-scale assembly workers to more than $43 an hour. 

“They’re taking their fair share. We’d just like our share too,” said Ford worker Harry Porter.

Ford CEO Jim Farley reportedly earned more than $20 million last year, meaning the average worker earning about $75,000 a year would need to work for about 281 years to match his pay. 

Lanara Johnson has worked as an assembly worker at Ford since 2020. She said exorbitant corporate salaries paired with stagnant worker wages sends a clear message to workers:

“I feel like they just don’t care about us,” she said.

“As long as they’re making what they want to make, we don’t seem to matter to them,” Johnson told The ‘Gander. “We’re working check-to-check just to pay our bills. It shouldn’t be like that.”

Wade added: “While the CEOs are getting all these raises and these million-dollar mansions, we’re just over here barely getting by. It’s time to stand up and get what we deserve. A new contract would change my living so I’m living somewhere better than middle- or upper-poor.”

The UAW has also demanded an end to a two-tiered system where new hires are paid lower wages and reduced benefits. UAW workers hired after 2007 also don’t receive defined-benefit pensions and their health benefits are less generous. The union wants the benefits restored.

Ford worker Jermarco Holloway said the union is “only asking for what’s fair” for its workers.

“Frankly, we deserve more. It only makes sense to give us a fraction of these profits,” Holloway said. “The cost of living is constantly going up. It’s not easy out here. We’re making $100,000 cars. It doesn’t make sense that we can’t even afford to buy the cheapest car we’re making.”

Workers confront a trucker as he crosses the picket line at a Ford plant in Wayne County. (The ‘Gander Newsroom/Kyle Kaminski)

Ray Crowley said he took a pay cut for a chance to work at Ford about six months ago, hoping it would lead to long-term financial stability and a career in which he could comfortably retire. He hopes the strike leads to higher wages—or at least a paycheck that can keep up with inflation.

“The investor class is definitely doing better than the working class,” Crowley said. “It’s hard work, and I’m hoping we get a raise and get some of the demands that we’re asking for here.”

In addition, the UAW has asked for 32-hour work weeks with 40 hours of pay. The demand has been viewed by some as a negotiating tactic, and not all Ford workers are taking it too seriously.

“That’s not really what we want,” Crowley added. “That was just put on the table in hopes of getting a counteroffer. I’m hoping it stays at 40 hours. We all want a little overtime most weeks.”

Auto workers picket outside Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne County. (The ‘Gander Newsroom/Kyle Kaminski)

More important to the union, however, is that it be allowed to represent workers at 10 electric vehicle battery factories—most of which are being built by joint ventures with South Korean battery makers. The union wants those workers at those plants to receive top UAW wages.

Fain has acknowledged that the union’s demands are “audacious.” But he contends that the richly profitable automakers can afford to raise workers’ pay to make up for what the union gave up to help the companies withstand the 2007-2009 financial crisis and the Great Recession.

“We’re living paycheck to paycheck on the line. It’s just not the same standard that it was 15-20 years ago, and we’re just trying to get back up,” said line operator Justin Fleck. “We’re fighting for something that people have been dealing with since the recession. A lot of these people took pay cuts and never got them back. We keep hearing about record profits, but they aren’t being carried over to the people who did the work—the people who actually made the sacrifices.”

‘Keep the Companies Guessing’

Over the last week, automakers have reportedly moved closer to the UAW’s demands on wages, but a big gulf still remains. Ford has offered a 20% boost in pay for workers over four years. GM has also made a similar 20% offer—including a 10% wage increase in the first year. And the last known offer from Stellantis was up to a 21% pay increase.

Fain has dismissed those recent proposals as inadequate for shielding workers from inflation, and argued they don’t do enough to reward them for making the Detroit Three so profitable.

The companies have rebuffed the union’s demands as too expensive. 

Automakers contend they will need to spend a lot of cash in the coming years to continue building combustion-engine vehicles while also preparing for electric vehicles of the future, and can’t afford to be saddled with significantly higher labor costs during the transition. 

They’ve also argued that meeting the union’s demands would force them to increase the retail price of vehicles—making them much more expensive than cars produced in Europe and Asia. 

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks at a union rally near in Detroit on Aug. 23. (AP Photo/Mike Householder)

Fain’s not buying those arguments, though, given the company’s massive profit margins.

“They’ve had a decade of record profits. When they’re profitable, it’s all theirs. they want to keep it all,” Fain said last week. “They’ve made a quarter of a trillion dollars, the big three have in the last decade, $21 billion in profits in the first six months of this year.”

The UAW could pick more plants to strike in the coming days; it all depends on progress—or lack of it—at the bargaining table, Fain has said. The union’s strategy to selectively decide which factories are targeted for the next potential strike will “keep the companies guessing.”

“If the companies continue to bargain in bad faith or continue to stall or continue to give us insulting offers, then our strike is going to continue to grow,” Fain told reporters this week. 

Analysts suspect a work stoppage of three weeks or more would quickly drain the automakers’ excess supply of vehicles—potentially raising prices on vehicles if the strike continues. 

The companies’ failure to reach a deal could also have a broader impact on the economy. Striking workers only receive about $500 a week in strike pay—far short of what they earn while they’re working. As a result, millions of dollars in wages could be removed from the economy. 

The automakers will likely feel the financial pinch, too. Calculations from the Anderson Economic Group show that a broader work stoppage would result in a $1 billion loss for automakers in just 10 days. During a 40-day UAW strike in 2019, GM alone lost $3.6 billion.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

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