As UAW strike continues, workers at Toledo Assembly Complex remain solid
Darren, Abigail Archibeque, Brandon Vasquez - Members of the right door team at the Toledo plant. | David Hill / People's World

TOLEDO, Ohio—Workers at the Toledo Assembly Complex are on the picket line and helping to spearhead the struggle against the corporate leadership of the Big 3 automakers. The complex, run by Stellantis, is one of three plants the union selected to strike first. The other two are the GM facility in Wentzville, Missouri, and a Ford final assembly plant in Wayne County, Michigan.

The workers here remain solid in their determination to stand up for respect on the job and fair treatment with substantial wage hikes and other gains that make up for their past sacrifices to keep the Big Three auto companies afloat. It is obscene, they say, that CEOs making many millions of dollars in compensation off their labor claim they can’t afford to meet their more-than-fair demands.

The sense of intimate family ties was palpable up and down the picket line on Saturday morning, the second day of the strike announced by UAW President Shawn Fain at 12:00 AM on Friday, Sept. 15. The Toledo Assembly plant was chosen as one of the first sites to strike as part of the UAWs “Stand Up” strike strategy.

The facility here includes the original 1941 Jeep factory and produces the hugely popular Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Gladiator vehicles, accounting for as much as 40% of production under the Jeep brand. “We build this brand,” Brandon Vasquez, team leader and strike captain for the Wrangler right door assembly crew, said.

Each entrance gate to the Toledo Assembly Complex was covered by a picket line composed of members of an assembly line team. The team that builds together, strikes together, with team leaders from inside the factory taking on the roles of strike captains for the picket line. Walking up to each gate felt like walking into a family reunion: laughter, food, and music rising from packs of red UAW t-shirts and signs.

Zack and Tiara Kendig work on the trim line at the plant. | David Hill / People’s World

Workers at the plant have ample opportunities to form the close-knit bonds they are relying on now. They work six days each week, 10 hours per day. Most also work one Sunday per month. “It seems like we see each other more than we see our own families,” said left side door line team leader Chris Denniss.

Both Denniss and his co-worker Dominic West turned out for their shift Saturday morning—this time on the picket line instead of the assembly line.

West and Denniss have worked together for nearly ten years. Both come from families with a long history at the Toledo Assembly Complex and the UAW. West has aunts and uncles as well as a grandparent who all worked at the plant. Denniss started the job through a referral from his dad, who worked on the Jeep assembly line for years.

In that time, Denniss and West have seen their pace of work increase dramatically while wages stagnated and jobs were cut back. Workers on the left door line process 210 cars in a single shift. In the past, left door assembly was completed in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Recently, jobs were cut on the line—along with the time allowed for each assembly cycle. Workers are now expected to complete the exact same assembly process in 1 minute and 40 seconds. Over and over again, 210 times per day, six days per week. Week after week.

Yet, these workers won’t be denied their fair share. “We can’t even afford to buy the cars we produce, while the CEOs take everything they can get away with” said Denniss, while holding a sign that read “End the Two Tier System,” referring to the system introduced after the 2009 government restructuring of the Big 3 that lowered wages for newly-hired autoworkers.

As he was speaking with People’s World, the speaker behind him blasted out the chorus of Ozzy Osbourn’s 1991 hit, No More Tears. Thrilling cheers and laughter filled the air, and everyone shared a round of fist-bumps and high fives.

Further down at the next gate, Brandon Vasquez led the right door assembly team for their shift on the picket line. Vasquez is another ten-year veteran at the plant, referred for the job by his father Robert, who works in Quality Control. “The support from the community has been unreal. We’ve got 18 cases of water just this morning, we’re being fed all day by people stopping by.”

Vasquez’s team has a tradition of pooling money to buy donuts from nearby Don’s Donuts for the whole crew every Friday morning. After hearing about the strike, Don himself stopped by with free donuts for the whole crew this week.

Brandon and Robert Vasquez, father and son together on the picket line. | David Hill / People’s World

Community support was undeniable. A non-stop barrage of horn honks from passing drivers accompanied nearly every moment of the picket. Fire trucks, a garbage crew, and even a city street sweeper all made detours to drive past the main gates of the assembly plant to show their support.

At one point, a crew of at least a dozen Polaris Slingshots, the low riding three-wheeled open top sports cars, rolled past the picket line in formation with music bumping and horns honking.

First strike for Darren

It is the first strike for Darren, a member of Vasquez’s right door assembly team who started the job just a few months ago. As a trainee, Darren reports to work at 5:30 a.m. every day.

He’s expected to learn a wide variety of assembly positions while maintaining the same pace of work and relentless six-day work week as the veteran employees. Only he has to do it all at an entry-level wage.

Out of the 15 other new hires who started at the same time as Darren, only five now remain at the plant due to the demanding pace of work and low wages. “This strike is the only way I can get a pay raise any time soon,” Darren reflected.

The consensus among the right door assembly team was that Abigail Archibeque bested all of her colleagues in both Jeep pedigree and skill. A third generation Jeep employee, Archibeque was joined on the picket line by her mother Tracy, who also works at the plant, and her grandmother Mary Gutierrez, who retired from the Toledo Assembly complex.

Abigail Archibeque has spent the last 4½ years burdened with “temporary worker” status, which requires her to float between any open position anywhere on the assembly line on demand. She must meet the same timing standards as anyone else while earning the lowest wages paid by the company. She maintains the same six-day, 10-hour-day schedule as any other worker at the plant but also must be available to take on extra shifts on her day off if necessary or risk losing her job. She will often pass an entire month without a day off work.

Nevertheless, the right door team agreed that Archibeque was likely the only one among them who was capable of assembling an entire Jeep Wrangler on her own. That’s because she’s done pretty much every job on the assembly line.

The trim line occupied the final gate Saturday morning. According to Zack, team leader and now strike captain for the trim assembly line, this line is among the fastest moving at the plant, with a pace of just 54 seconds per vehicle. The team processes over 500 Wranglers every shift.

The pace has definitely increased over time for Tiara Kendig, a nine-year veteran of the trim line along with Zack. “I couldn’t tell you who exactly sets the pace for the line. All of our jobs are set by somebody looking at a spreadsheet on the computer, somebody who has never once even tried to do this work.”

David Hill / People’s World

Like so many of her co-workers who started at the plant through family connections, Kendig was referred for her job by her sister. She now suffers from chronic lower back pain after years of strenuous daily labor at the plant. Still, she would love to afford a Jeep Wrangler one day. “I just think of all the cool options I could put on it.”

A sense of family and community, built through hard daily work, binds this union together. They know what they are fighting for: “If I had a 32-hour work week, I could spend more time with my daughter and my wife, live a little bit instead of working all the time,” said Chris Denniss from the left door line.

Robert Vasquez told People’s World, “Before I retire I want to make sure my son and all the other workers have a chance to live a decent life. That’s why I’m out here.” And they know workers all across the country are watching to see what happens with the UAW.

Walking out from the picket line after spending the morning with the striking workers, Stephanie, a veteran of the right door assembly team with a young daughter at home approached me. “Can I ask you a question?,” she said. “What do you think will happen with the strike?” I think the unity on display in Toledo bodes well for the workers. El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. The people united will never be defeated.


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David Hill
David Hill

David Hill is a member of the Mike Gold Writer’s Collective. He follows labor, LGBTQ rights, policing, and other issues. He is a member of the National Writers Union and Freelance Solidarity Project.