UAW strike: Workers at 3 plants in 3 states launch historic action against Detroit Three

DETROIT — The United Auto Workers launched a historic strike late Thursday by targeting all three Detroit automakers at once after contract negotiations failed to land a new deal.

UAW members at three assembly plants in Michigan, Ohio and Missouri went on strike after their labor contracts expired at 11:59 p.m. The UAW confirmed that about 13,000 members across the three plants are walking the picket lines.

As the deadline for a new contract passed, cheering could be heard from inside the gates at Stellantis' Toledo Assembly Complex as cars and trucks streamed out and honking horns provided the soundtrack. At Ford Motor Co.'s Michigan Assembly in Wayne, union strikers cheered: "We love you, Shawn, we love you," when UAW President Shawn Fain arrived after midnight to join the picket line. He stayed until after 1 a.m. and told members, "I work for you."

In Wayne, only the Final Assembly and Paint portion of the facility was targeted. The third plant in what was branded as the first wave of walkouts was General Motors' Wentzville Assembly in Missouri.

The strike, which the union is calling the "Stand Up Strike," is targeting specific plants of Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, which makes Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Fiat brands. Union leaders have said they will select new target plants to take out on strike in various waves if negotiations continue to fail to land new agreements with the auto companies. The strategy is designed to keep the automakers off-guard and leverage the union's position to secure a better contract than the offers the Detroit automakers have made so far.

"This strategy will keep the companies guessing. It will give our national negotiators maximum leverage and flexibility in bargaining. And if we need to go all out, we will. Everything is on the table," Fain said in a late night livestream to members on Facebook Live.

“No matter what, all of us need to keep organizing: Rallies, protests, red shirt days,” Fain said during the broadcast. “We must show the companies you are ready to join and stand up and fight on a moment’s notice.”

His comments came near the end of a day of last-minute bargaining that ultimately stalled. The UAW has been negotiating with all three carmakers separately, yet simultaneously, since late summer.

Automakers react in disappointment

Shortly before midnight, GM sent out a statement saying the union informed the automaker it was on strike at Wentzville Assembly as of 11:59 PM.

"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," GM said in the statement. "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.”

Stellantis also sent a statement: "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."

Ford did not immediately provide a comment.

Cheering crowds at striking plants

Just before midnight, a man in his white GMC pickup delivered firewood to the Toledo Assembly Complex for the burn barrel that was just bursting to flame. He didn’t want to give his name but said he works mornings at the plant building Jeeps and, “I’m just trying to make sure people stay warm,” he said.

Outside Michigan Assembly in Wayne, striking workers carried signs reading, “UAW on Strike” and others with the phrase, “Saving the American Dream.”

Parking lots across the street from Michigan Assembly rapidly filled as UAW members arrived cheering and chanting and singing and shouting. They carried signs and created a sea of red in their union shirts. Cars and trucks honked while passing.

When Fain arrived after the midnight deadline, an animated crowd of people quickly surrounded him and cheered. One man remarked that even at six foot four inches, he couldn’t see Fain in the crush of people surrounding the union leader.

Members shouted, “We love you, Shawn, we love you.”

'We gave up a lot'

The striking workers have their own reasons for wanting to walk out.

Dwayne Walker, 60, president of UAW Local 900, stood at the picket line in Wayne late Thursday. Local 900 has about 5500 members, he said, 4,000 of whom are now on strike at Michigan Assembly.

Our motive is not a labor strike,” Walker said. “We’re trying to accomplish some things.”

Joel Ventimeglia, 46, of St. Clair Shores, said he inspects Bronco and Ranger vehicles on the line, and has worked for Ford at Michigan Assembly for 11 years. His reasons for walking the line are simple, “We gave up a lot a long time ago,” he said. “We just want what’s fair.”

But one argument some analysts have made is that if they give the union members all they ask, prices for new vehicles, especially electric cars, will have to go up.

Supplemental work is 'hell'

Back in Toledo, Leticia Lopez, 38, of Toledo has been a supplemental worker at the Toledo Assembly Complex for four years. She's one of 1,400 supplemental workers there, she said. Before that, she’d been a supplemental worker for 3 ½ years at GM.

Early Friday morning, she stood outside her plant cheering. She’s been waiting, she said, for this moment. Working as a supplemental worker at the plant is more than difficult.

“It’s hell,” Lopez said, noting that during the pandemic, when others stayed home if they needed to, supplemental workers “were stuck in here,” she said, pointing to the plant.

The mother of seven said she stays at her job for the health care, which is free, but it doesn’t come with dental or vision coverage. Her current pay is $17 an hour and she said there’s no pathway to a permanent spot.

Dawnya Ferdinandsen, 54, of Sandusky stood outside the Toledo Assembly Complex cheering on the cars and trucks as they honked and sped by.

“Blow that horn, that’s it,” she said.

Ferdinandsen works at the GM Propulsion plant in Toledo but came to the Stellantis plant in solidarity.

“They supported us when we went out,” she said, referencing the 2019 strike against GM when workers from Ford and Stellantis, then Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, would join the picketers outside the GM plants during their free time.

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Spur negotiations rather than paralyze'

Stellantis makes its popular Jeep Wrangler, Wrangler 4xe, and Jeep Gladiator pickups at the Toledo Complex. At Michigan Assembly, formerly called Michigan Truck Plant, Ford builds the Ranger mid-size pickup and the Bronco SUV. Wentzville Assembly in Missouri is where GM builds the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize pickups and the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans.

"At this point, the three assembly plants that will walk out are a dramatic shot across the bow," said labor expert Harley Shaiken, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. "The closure creates economic pain without a wider paralysis throughout the company. It is meant to spur negotiations rather than paralyze the company."

If the tactic doesn't work to get a better offer, Shaiken said other more “strategic” plants may be struck that could increase the pressure on the automakers by crippling facilities that make engines, transmissions and other vital components.

"A GM stamping plant −the Chevrolet Metal Center in Flint − and a GM Delphi electronics plant in Flint went out on a 54-day strike in 1998 paralyzing virtually the entire corporation," Shaiken said.

That could lead to a lockout at other facilities that aren't struck but may not be able to operate with certain components, raising the specter that workers at those plants would suffer financial losses.

Alternatively, the union could revert to shutting all plants at a single automaker, Shaiken said.

Tess Mello, 23, of Ann Arbor, and a member of the Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Michigan, center, stands with other UAW supporters across from the Ford Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne less than an hour ahead of an impending UAW strike Thursday night, September 14, 2023.
Tess Mello, 23, of Ann Arbor, and a member of the Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Michigan, center, stands with other UAW supporters across from the Ford Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne less than an hour ahead of an impending UAW strike Thursday night, September 14, 2023.

"What puts us in uncharted waters is a number of sharply different paths open to the union to press its demands. We also have to be aware, however, that the UAW isn’t the only actor here," Shaiken said. "The automakers could begin choosing strategic options as well."

The UAW's initial strike targets are noteworthy because they affect an assembly plant at each of the three companies, said Marick Masters, a labor expert and business professor at Wayne State University.

"This action is significant enough to convey the union's resolve in escalating pressure to get a better deal than has been put on the table so far," Masters said. "By not striking critical components plants the UAW avoids painting the companies into the corner."

Ford's bargaining late into the night

Shortly after Fain's 10 p.m. address, Ford put out an update to its final day of bargaining with the union.

"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," Ford's statement read. "On the key economic issues that matter most to our UAW-represented employees, Ford has submitted four proposals to the UAW since Aug. 29."

Ford said its last offer 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," Ford's statement read. "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."

Ford said union negotiators made clear that unless it agreed to the UAW's "unsustainable terms," it would strike at 11:59 p.m.

"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," Ford said. "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."

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GM's last-minute offer

GM CEO Mary Barra said late Thursday afternoon that the automaker made a historic offer earlier to the UAW that pushes the hourly wage increase up to 20% over the life of the contract compared with 18%, which is what Fain said the company had offered a day earlier.

"We’ve worked days, nights and weekends since receiving the UAW’s demands. We have been bargaining in good faith to deliver a better package with historic wage increases and manufacturing commitments, recognizing your contributions to our company — past, present, and future," Barra said in a statement. "We are working with urgency and have proposed yet another increasingly strong offer with the goal of reaching an agreement tonight. Remember: we had a strike in 2019 and nobody won."

Fain revealed the list of "members" demands on Aug. 1 and they include:

  • Eliminating wage tiers

  • A 40% wage increase over the life of the contract. The 40% signifies the increase to CEO salaries.

  • Restoring the cost-of-living allowance adjustments to counteract inflation

  • Defined benefit pension for all workers

  • The right to strike over plant closures

  • A reduced work week and more paid time off

  • Limiting the use of temporary workers

  • Increased benefits to current retirees

What is needed for a settlement

To get a tentative agreement that can be ratified by the membership, the UAW wants an offer that goes further on such critical issues as wages, workers reaching a top wage sooner, and the use of temps, Masters said.

"Something north of a 30% increase in general wages, a more expedited progression to the top tier (less than three years), and restrictions on the usage of temps will be necessary steps toward a settlement," Masters said. "Obviously, the more pay that can be put into the electronic accounts of the workers the better, and there are ways of doing so without further increasing base wages."

Early on in Facebook Live appearances to members, Fain shared the offers the Detroit carmakers proposed and he indicated they belonged in the trash because they fell short of meeting any of the union's demands. At the end of last month, he filed unfair labor practice charges against GM and Stellantis saying they were bargaining in bad faith because they had not yet made a serious offer to address the demands.

Fain has emphasized that the automakers collectively have made $21 billion in the first half of the year and billions more in recent years without giving hourly workers their "fair share" after they gave big wage concessions back in 2009 when GM and Stellantis, then called Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, were going through bankruptcy.

The Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio just before the contract deadline for contract negotiations between the UAW and the Detroit Three on Thursday, September 14, 2023.
The Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio just before the contract deadline for contract negotiations between the UAW and the Detroit Three on Thursday, September 14, 2023.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: UAW could not reach deal with GM, Ford, Stellantis, strikes at 3 plants