Michael Shields | Molly Bryden
Yesterday at 11:59 p.m. United Auto Workers walked off the job at strategic plants at all Big Three auto makers, including Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio, joining the teachers currently on strike in Youngstown. Their Master Agreement with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis expired without reaching a new deal.
The strategy – to strike only strategic locations that can shut down other production in the supply chain – hearkens back to the UAW’s 1936-37 sit-down strike at General Motors’ engine plant; at that time the plant produced the engines for all Chevrolet cars. This is the first time UAW has been on strike against all three of America’s unionized auto makers.
Auto workers are demanding the restoration of benefits and pay scales after making large concessions to keep their employers solvent during the auto bailouts in the Great Recession. They want pay raises on the order of 40 percent by September 2027, in line with what executives have had over the last three years; and the elimination of the two-tier system that retained robust pay rates for some employees but brought new hires on at much lower rates and then kept them there for years.
Whereas in 1965 the typical publicly traded corporation paid its CEO about 20 times what a middle-income employee made, by 2022 automotive executives were paid 281-to-1 at Ford, 362-to-1 at General Motors, and 365-to-1 at Stellantis. UAW’s effort to end two-tier contracts that leave a generation of workers in precarious, low-paid jobs for years is part of a broader union movement. The UAW positions build on the Teamsters’ victory this summer at UPS that implemented a company-wide $21 minimum wage, raised part-time workers’ pay by an average of 48% and averted a strike. Other demands seek to restore defined benefit pensions and retiree medical insurance.
UAW’s demands also focus on the preservation of their communities. They seek the right to strike over plant closures, and a guarantee that if a company shutters a plant in their community, it will pay displaced workers to do community service work instead of leaving their families to transfer to a new state or losing their jobs. When General Motors closed its Lordstown Chevy Cruze plant in 2018, workers left behind spouses and children, aging parents, and houses they couldn’t sell as prices collapsed throughout the community. Research shows that every automotive job supports 7.1 other jobs in the labor market.
The United Auto Workers has a long history of advocating for economic justice and civil rights beyond the scope of what would benefit its own members. It sought passage of landmark civil rights legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Fair Housing Act; the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988; and the Equal Rights Amendment, which states took half a century to ratify and the Trump administration blocked from becoming law. With some 5,000 members present, the UAW had the largest representation of any organization at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Check out UAW then-president Walter Reuther’s speech here.
The UAW’s commitment to the preservation of strong communities will ensure that working people have secure and well-paying jobs in the electric vehicle (EV) transition now under way. The federal government has provided substantial tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s effort to mitigate climate change through investments in clean energy infrastructure. Incentives are planned for the Lordstown Ultium Battery Plant that now employs several former GM Lordstown employees. Before UAW organized that plant, workers were paid just $16.50 per hour and sustained injuries from exposure to the chemicals involved. Like the union that represents them, policymakers must be thoughtful about how the transition to vehicle electrification will impact the workers who now build our cars and supply the parts, and the communities their work sustains.
Today’s UAW strike targeting all three long-time US auto manufacturers is historic, but the UAW’s commitment to building an economy where all working people can thrive is not new. For a generation, the wages and working conditions won by United Auto Workers set a high standard for working conditions far beyond their own membership. Over the last four decades, Ohio workers produced record wealth for this state while their productivity rose by an average of 76%; but the median worker saw a pay raise of just 4%. UAW’s demands could help working people to do something the labor market doesn’t do on its own: win their share of the wealth that working people in Ohio and the nation make possible.