By Arnie Alpert, Active with the Activists
Arnie Alpert spent decades as a community organizer/educator in NH movements for social justice and peace. Officially retired since 2020, he keeps his hands (and feet) in the activist world while writing about past and present social movements.
WAYNE, MICHIGAN—Watching TV news coverage of the United Auto Workers strike from my sister-in-law’s suburban Detroit home, it looked like there weren’t that many people picketing at the Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, one of three plants where the UAW went on strike Thursday night. After we visited the picket line a few days later I understood the source of my confusion.
Ford’s Michigan Avenue Assembly Plant in Wayne is huge, sprawling over a 369-acre site where UAW members assemble Ford Broncos and Rangers. There are about a dozen driveways onto the site, and each one had its own team of UAW picketers, at least 40 by the gate across the highway from the office of UAW Local 900 where we parked.
Jacob Wild and his co-worker Cory were the first two UAW members I met there. They work at the adjacent Ford stamping plant, or at least they did until the company shut it down on the first day of the strike, laying off 600 workers. It’s their first strike, though they’ve been through plenty of contract fights, including the 2007 one where the union accepted major concessions such as a 2-tier wage system. At the time, Ford claimed labor costs threatened the company’s ability to stay in business. Since then, “they still haven’t given us anything back,” Jacob said.
Shawn Fain, who became president following a close election earlier this year vowed a new approach to bargaining, including a higher level of transparency with members. In a live-streamed speech Wednesday evening, he told members they would start a “Stand Up” strike Thursday at midnight if negotiations with any of the Big Three auto companies failed to reach an agreement. Under the union’s strategy, they would strike selected plants with plans to escalate if negotiations remained unproductive.
Using a set of infographics, Fain explained that profits at Ford, GM, and Stellantis have risen 65% in the past 4 years. Over the same period, CEO pay rose 40% while the pay for union workers went up only 6%. “They’re absolutely rolling in the money,” he said, while the workers have fallen behind.
“As far as tiers go,” Fain said, “we want to end the broken unjust system of tiers. We believe in equal pay for equal work, that no worker should be treated like they’re a second-class citizen. We proposed a 90-day progression to top rate, the restoration of pensions, and post-retirement health care for all.”
Thursday evening, Fain was back on Facebook Live with an announcement that one plant from each of the Big Three would go on strike barring any major breakthroughs at the bargaining table. The Ford plant in Wayne would be the only one in metro Detroit. Picket lines went up at midnight when the old contracts expired. It’s the first time in UAW history that they’ve gone on strike at all 3 big manufacturers at once.
Automobile manufacturing has declined dramatically but Detroit is still the “Motor City.” The UAW and the Big Three continue to be major players in the area’s culture and economy. On local TV over the weekend, stories about the strike alternated with coverage of the annual Detroit Auto Show.
Cory, who did not give me his last name, said Ford workers can’t even afford to buy the products they’re making. But it’s not just about auto workers, he said. “Everybody’s struggling right now. Everybody needs more pay. This shouldn’t just be about us, it should be about the whole country rising up.”
What Jacob and Cory said they want most is to recover lost pay since the 2007 concessions, a return to pay increases that keep up with inflation, a return to actual pensions for all workers, and an end to the despised two-tier wage system.
The dissatisfaction of auto workers has been deepened by the huge raises taken by auto company executives. “During the eight and a half minutes GM CEO Mary Barra appeared on CNN this morning, she ‘earned’ more money than any autoworker makes in a full work day,” the union tweeted on Friday.
“We’re not asking for anything above what we should be already having,” Cory said, adding that the union’s proposal for a 32-hour work week is really the only new issue on the table.
Mary Abdullah, who was picketing on her day off from a Ford transmission plant in Livonia, was hired under the two-tier system in 2007. For five years, she said, she made $16.60 an hour with no health insurance, working alongside people who made twice as much with full benefits. “I had three children that I had to raise by myself. And I had to be on Medicaid for my children to have insurance.” Adding to the insult, she lost five years of seniority when she moved to a different Ford plant, in Flat Rock. “I had to start all over again,” she said.
“We never voted for the two-tier system,” Cory said. No one wants to work next to someone doing the same job for half the pay, he said. “We’re all equal here.”
Mary’s message to the people of New Hampshire: “Support the unions. support working families. We work hard.”
Cory went further. “Rise up with us,” he said. “Everybody go on strike. Show these globalist elite, these people that have all the money that think they can just walk on us, and just strike.”
That’s unlikely, at least in the short run. But the auto workers strike is likely to expand. In a statement Monday night UAW president Shawn Fain issued another ultimatum to the Big Three: Without progress by noon on Friday toward what the union believes is a fair agreement, the UAW will call on more members to join the strike.