Auto workers ready to ‘hit the bricks’ in ‘Stand Up Strikes’
UAW members march in Detroit. | Paul Sancya/AP

DETROIT—With hours to go until the Auto Workers’ contracts with Detroit’s Big 3 car companies—Ford, GM, and Stellantis/FiatChrysler—expire at the end of September 14, UAW President Shawn Fain unveiled a “Stand Up” strike strategy of having selected locals strike selected plants at each of the auto firms.

And if the car companies don’t come to their senses and agree on new lucrative contracts covering the 150,000 workers—pacts to make up for 15 years of wage stagnation, two-tier pay systems, and cuts in health and pension benefits—more and more locals would walk in ensuing days, he said.

Fain spent part of a 75-minute video information session with thousands of members Wednesday evening putting the conflict between the car companies and the workers in class terms. He pulled no punches.

“I want us to stand up against corporate greed,” he declared. “It’s the working class versus the billionaire class.”

“This is a stand-up strike against massive inequality,” just like the historic and successful sit-down strikes of the 1930s, he added.

Fain laid out the strike strategy in the latest union-wide session, aired at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on September 13 on Facebook. A follow-up video session, scheduled for the evening of September 14, will list the first locals to go out should talks go nowhere.

And from what Fain said in the rest of this video report, that walkout is likely.

Far apart on dollars

Dollars, or lack of them, are the top issue and the two sides are still far apart. But as one young UAW worker said later, workers suffer from conditions inside plants, too.

Those conditions include 12-hour days of excruciating repetitive-motion work, mandatory overtime, breaks so short—10, 10, and 20 minutes—there’s barely enough time to run to the bathroom, mandatory overtime, and mandatory work every third Sunday, too.

The young worker told People’s World she started a year ago at $16.25 an hour because of the two-tier system the UAW is trying to eliminate. A year later she is up to $17.25 an hour, a wage that is less than what many workers in fast food earn. The current rules won’t allow her to scale up for eight years.

A worker in the top tier who does the same work near her on the line gets paid twice as much as she does.

She has only 55 seconds to jump into the vehicle passing her on the line and perform a number of tasks in the vehicle, including connecting important wires. The company should allow more time to do what she has to do in the vehicle, she said. Jumping in and out of vehicle after vehicle is devastating on her knees, she said.

Immediately after the 55 or 60 seconds are up she has to jump into the next vehicle and repeat the same tasks, over and over for 12 grueling hours with only three breaks a day, two 10-minute ones and another 20-minute one. “It is a long walk, 5 minutes each way to the bathroom,” she said “and the same to the cafeteria, so many try to avoid leaving our stations altogether, people lie down on carts near the line just to grab a little rest.”

She described how workers get written up as having been “AWOL” the day they get back from an absence. In short, the idea pushed in the right-wing media that auto workers are “spoiled” and get too much compensation already, is totally false.

The Big 3, Fain said, proposed cutting that two-tier progression to four years. The car company honchos are trying to avoid giving up the two-tier system.

Fain reported little progress on economic issues. To make up for the past losses, UAW wants across-the-board raises of at least 41% over four years, restoration of cost-of-living increases—forced out when the Obama administration assembled a rescue package for then-bankrupt GM and FiatChrysler —pension increases for retirees who haven’t had a raise in a decade, and improved health care, among other goals. The monetary demands of the union are minuscule when compared to the huge amounts of money being raked in by company executives, money they have been able to use to line their pockets at the expense of concessions they got from workers in the past.

The companies offered raises of between 17.5% (Stellantis) and 20% (Ford) over four and a half years, plus one-time signing bonuses. Profit-sharing would actually shrink 21% under Ford’s proposal and 29% under GM’s. Stellantis hadn’t presented a proposal as of last night.

Companies resist concessions to workers

The firms didn’t budge on ending mandatory overtime or restoring COLAs. Their top economic concession so far is to add Juneteenth as a holiday. Nobody mentioned the long shifts and the companies tuned out UAW’s demand for gaining workers family time via 32-hour weeks at 40 hours’ pay.

Yet the mainstream media parrots car company talking points that they’ve offered UAW the best contracts ever. Or it twists the story by calling the UAW greedy or, on NBC, predicting a strike would cause car prices to rise, then finding one dealer to say so, without investigating further.

Fain’s reply: “Trust your union” to tell the truth about workers’ demands and company replies.

UAW members don’t agree with the mainstream media’s slant. Far from it. And a veteran Ford worker and sometime local union leader added the mood on the shop floor is that workers are both ready and militant.

In the last 10-15 minutes of the telecast, Fain scrolled through comments streaming into the video session’s chatbox. Hundreds of the writers favored striking all three car companies at all of their plants, all at the same time, if there are no new, acceptable contracts by the deadline, 11:59 pm, Eastern Time, on September 14.

Fain appreciated the commenters’ demands but explained the union’s entire bargaining committee, which has been present for all the sessions with the Detroit 3, agreed the “Stand up for workers! Stand up for America!” strategy was the best route to go. And there have been nightly reports on negotiations’ progress or lack of it, a change from prior UAW leaders’ actions.

“I see people want to go out at once,” Fain said. “That’s still an option…We may strike all of the Big 3 at once. But if you’re not called” to strike “continue to work until you are.”

The point, he said, is to keep the car companies off balance, wondering which plants UAW will call the strike at next. Fain told locals not on the initial strike list to stay ready, and meanwhile participate in rallies, picketing where they can, and other pro-worker acts.

“This is a decision by a lot of people, who are on your teams, trying to figure out the best way to strategize” to make new and generous contracts occur, he said.

The new strategy is one of a number of innovations Fain and his reform team instituted at UAW since they took over the influential union five months ago. Another is mass meetings, both at plants and via video, to keep members constantly informed and engaged on issues that are forcing them out onto the picket lines. Former UAW leaders kept bargaining behind closed doors and contracts under wraps until presented to workers as finished products.

Fain had one other point: The car companies have earned $251 million in profits over the last contract and plowed it into stock buybacks for Wall Street investors and multi-million-dollar annual pay and perks for corporate honchos, not workers’ paychecks. Union members deserve their fair share of the profits that they make for the car companies.

That’s not just his opinion, Fain declared. In shows of solidarity, it’s the members.


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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.