UAW on Strike: In Historic Move, Auto Workers Target All Big Three Automakers at Once
Written by GRB on 16/09/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The UAW, the United Auto Workers, has launched a historic targeted strike against the Big Three U.S. automakers—Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, which is the parent company of Chrysler. On Thursday, UAW President Shawn Fain announced strikes at three facilities—a GM plant in Wentzville, Missouri; a Stellantis complex in Toledo, Ohio; and a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan. About 12,700 workers are taking part in this initial strike but Fain said the strike could be expanded.
SHAWN FAIN: Tonight, for the first time in our history, we will strike all three of the Big Three at once. We are using a new strategy, the Stand Up Strike. We will call on select facilities, locals or units to stand up and go on strike. 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.
AMY GOODMAN: The strike comes during a highly profitable period for the Big Three automakers. According to the UAW, the three auto companies made a combined $21 billion in profits in the first six months of the year. The union is demanding higher wages, a return to traditional pension plans and a shorter work week. This is Jesse Ramirez, president of UAW Local 230.
JESSIE RAMIREZ: It’s a long time coming. Our members are owed what they gave up during the bankruptcies. We gave up pay, we gave up COLA, we gave up pensions. Tiers were introduced into our location here. So it’s about time that all the sacrifice that our members gave to this company to bring it out of bankruptcies and now one of the most profitable car companies, it is time that our members get what is owed to them.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, UAW President Shawn Fain addressed auto workers about the need to strike.
SHAWN FAIN: I am at peace with the decision to strike if we have to because I know that we’re on the right side in this battle. It is a battle of the working class against the rich, the haves versus the have-nots, the billionaire class against everybody else. And again in talking about that, this class warfare, people accuse us and say this is class warfare. There has been class warfare going on in this country for the last 40 years. The billionaire class has been taking everything and leaving everybody else to fight for the scraps. And when I talk about that, there’s one more piece of scripture it reminds me of, in Matthew 19: 23-24, which states, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Why is it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? I have to believe that answer, at least in part, is because in the kingdom of God, no one hoards all the wealth while everybody else suffers and starves. In the kingdom of God, no one puts themselves in a position of total domination over the entire community. In the kingdom of God, no one forces others to perform endless backbreaking work just to feed their families or put a roof over their heads. That world is not the kingdom of God. That world is hell. Living paycheck to paycheck, scraping to get by, that’s hell. Choosing between medicine and rent is hell. Working seven days a week for 12 hours a day for months on end is hell. Having your plant closed down and your family scattered across the country is hell. Being made to work during a pandemic and not knowing if you might get sick and die or spread the disease to your family is hell. And enough is enough. It’s time to decide what kind of world we want to live in. And it’s time to decide what we’re willing to do to get it.
AMY GOODMAN: That was UAW President Shawn Fain who took office in March. We are joined now by two guests. Alex Press is a staff writer for Jacobin magazine where she covers labor. Her new piece is headlined “The UAW Strike Matters for the Entire U.S. Working Class”: https://jacobin.com/2023/09/the-uaw-strike-matters-for-the-entire-us-working-class. Press was a union organizer before becoming a reporter. And Marcelina Pedraza is with us. She works as an electrician at a Ford assembly plant in Chicago, a member of UAW Local 551 and a fourth-generation union worker. Marcelina, let’s begin with you in Chicago. Your response to what happened last night at midnight? Thousands of auto workers going out on strike in a targeted strike against three of the automakers, the three major, the Big Three automakers? Talk about the significance of this.
MARCELINA PEDRAZA: First of all, thanks for having me. I love the show. This is an historic moment, as you said, the first time in history that all Big Three auto workers will be striking. And it’s inspiring to see the solidarity between all of the auto workers, not just auto workers but workers from all around. This is going to be beneficial to us. We are going to keep fighting. And I hope this strategy will work. I am going to trust the process. I know a lot of members might be disappointed that we weren’t called, but that still could be a possibility and we are ready if and when we will be called to walk out next.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this strategy of the targeted strike. We have never seen this before in U.S. history. Also, do you think a change in the leadership of the UAW—Shawn Fain became president in March—has made the difference here?
MARCELINA PEDRAZA: Yes, for sure. Our newly elected President Shawn Fain said, “This is going to keep the companies guessing.” Since he was elected on the campaign, the one member/one vote campaign from UAWD, Unite All Workers for Democracy, I think it has made a huge difference. Members are seeing more transparency. We are getting constant updates, which we haven’t seen in the past couple contracts that I have been involved with. So the members are fired up, and we’re ready and we’re united.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s a really key point that you are making, Marcelina, that Shawn Fain won in the first direct election of the UAW’s leadership in the organization’s—in the union’s—88-year history. I want to go to the Ford CEO Jim Farley who was speaking on CNBC earlier this week, claiming the United Auto Workers union proposal could bankrupt the company.
JIM FARLEY: If we signed up for the UAW’s request, instead of making money and distributing $75,000 in profit-sharing in the last 10 years, we would have lost $15 billion and gone bankrupt by now. The average pay would be nearly $300,000, fully fringed, for a four-day workweek. There is no way—
PERSON: Per employee, per UAW employee?
JIM FARLEY: Yeah. This is—our fully tenured school teacher in the U.S. makes $66,000. Someone from the military or a fireman makes mid $50,000. This is four or five times, six times, what they make. There’s no way we can be sustainable as a company. That is why we put a proposal in two weeks ago to say, “Look, you want us to choose bankruptcy over supporting our workers? Here’s our proposal. Let’s work through this.” We’ve heard nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the CEO of GM [sic], Jim Farley. Last night, Shawn Fain was asked about his comments and he said that the labor pay was something like 5% of what the companies pay out. Alex Press, you are a staff writer for Jacobin. You wrote this new piece, “The UAW Strike Matters for the Entire U.S. Working Class”: https://jacobin.com/2023/09/the-uaw-strike-matters-for-the-entire-us-working-class. If you can talk about what Farley is contending?
ALEX PRESS: Yeah. Shawn Fain said last night in response to those comments, “Every word out of their mouths is a lie.” And I think in this case, it is absolutely true. Jim Farley was paid tens of millions of dollars last year. There’s no sense a bankruptcy is on the table for these companies. I think it is important to think about, when we talk about strikes that are about ending tiers, especially, which is what’s at play here with the auto workers, $300,000 a year, this is a calculation for the top rate with all benefits translated into monetary value. There are workers on the assembly lines right now who are making $22 an hour with very few benefits. These are workers who can spend up to eight years as temporary employees, not given access to full-time benefits and pay because of these tiers. They might work 60-, 70-hour weeks alongside people paid much better.
This destroys a union, right? It rots it from the inside. Workers distrust each other. It is very hard to keep oneself together in such a situation. So Jim Farley, a man who is paid tens of millions of dollars, is contesting that he can’t afford to give workers a few extra dollars an hour. So I think there are many specificities when you go into the list of demands here that you don’t have to be all-in and a member of the UAW’s reform leadership to sense that this is a lie. Even Bloomberg itself talked about how real wages have been down 30% percent for UAW members over the past 10 years. Again, Bloomberg said that the companies can afford this.
AMY GOODMAN: And, just to say, Jim Farley is the Ford CEO—that’s where Marcelina works—made something like $21 million in total compensation last year according to The Detroit News, while Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares made over $28 million. Can you talk about why 2023, this historic strike, relates so directly to the 2009 financial crisis and what UAW agreed to give back because the company said they would go bankrupt?
ALEX PRESS: Sure. There were a number of concessions that the workers agreed to, that the UAW agreed to, quote-unquote “to save these companies.” They were failing, they were facing bankruptcy.
Some of the things the workers gave up included cost-of-living allowances, COLA as we call it. So, as inflation has been high lately, these workers are losing more and more money every year in real wages. They introduced tiers, as I mentioned, workers who are working alongside the older workers, the more senior workers, and being paid less. They lack pensions. Retirees are suffering. These are all things that were supposed to be temporary. The company said, “As soon as we are profitable, you will get this back.” It was this sense of partnership. That partnership was a poison pill for workers and the UAW new leadership knows that. And they’re saying, “Hey, you’re very profitable.” It is very clear that these companies are making historic profits. It is up almost 100% as far as their North American profits over the past decade versus the decade prior. The leadership and the rank-and-file are saying, “Okay, you lied. You didn’t give it back, so now we’re taking it back.”
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Bernie Sanders has called on the U.S. public to support a strike by UAW members.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: If the Big Three automakers—General Motors, Ford and Stellantis—do not provide reasonable contracts to address long-standing inequities in the industry, there will be a strike. And all of us should support the strikers, the UAW members who will be fighting not only for themselves, but against a corporate culture of arrogance, cruelty and selfishness which is causing massive and unnecessary pain for the majority of working families throughout our country. Their fight against corporate greed is our fight. Their victory will resonate all across the economy, impact millions of workers from coast to coast and help create a more just and equitable economy.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bernie Sanders. Alex Press, you have got the three targeted plants. In Wayne, Michigan, Ford, 3,300 workers. In Toledo, Ohio, 5,800 workers at Stellantis, makers of Chrysler. And in Wentzville, 3,600 workers striking against GM. Explain this overall strategy and then how it could expand to over 150,000 workers.
ALEX PRESS: Sure. As we have heard, it is called the Stand Up Strike. That is what the UAW is calling it. It has never been tried before. It is a callback to the union’s origins, which were in the Flint sit-down strikes. There are these incredible photos that you can find in archives and the history books of workers sitting down in the plants. They’re reading newspapers, they’re drinking coffee. They wouldn’t leave. This was a targeted strike on particular plants that the entire supply chain, the entire supply line for auto, relied upon. And it was an enormous success. It built the UAW. It inspired copycats in other unions. And it largely reignited and built the 20th century U.S. labor movement.
So Shawn Fain has said, “This is our generation’s answer to the sit-down strike.” Now, right now, as we have said, there’s just under 13,000 workers on strike. This is an escalation tactic. Shawn Fain has said that not only once a week but several times a week he could call out new plants. Every time one of these companies gives an insulting proposal at the bargaining table, Shawn Fain and the leadership can stand up and say, “All right, new plants are out.” It is this increase of leverage.
There are risks, of course. An 150,000-person strike all at once certainly would be powerful. It would be important for the workers because it would be such a mass of them. They would have their communities with them. It would be so visible. But at the same time, it’s very expensive. These workers right now are still earning paychecks, and the workers who are on strike, they are getting money out of the strike fund, $500 a week. But this helps sustain the strike, right?
So I think so far we’ve seen—I was a little bit of a skeptic about this, and we’ve already seen that it’s paying some dividends here. There have been a lot of reports from UAW members in certain plants that their plant management has been given fake lists of what plants are going to be targeted, that it is messing up the supply chain, that there is sort of confusion and panic among the companies. And so this is really—to use a war metaphor, it is guerrilla warfare.
AMY GOODMAN: Marcelina, you come from a blue-collar family, fourth-generation union worker. For you, the significance of this moment, not only for the auto workers, but can you talk about you see yourself and the auto workers setting a model for working people across the country?
MARCELINA PEDRAZA: Yes. I come from the southeast side of Chicago which was once the biggest steel producer in the nation. I have seen my family, my father and grandfather worked in the mills and I’ve seen those plants close down and I’ve seen what it can do to a community. I used to work at the Belvidere Assembly Plant and now that plant has been idled and we don’t know what is going to happen there. That’s a much smaller city than Chicago obviously but it’s going to be devastating to that community. So this is an important moment in history for us to win back a lot of the things we have lost these past few years. It’s huge for the labor movement. And it is uniting workers all across the world. We have had solidarity from Brazilian auto workers, Mexican auto workers and just workers of all kinds. So it is going to make a huge impact on working families.
AMY GOODMAN: Alex Press, before we go, put this in the context of union activism around the country and around the world this year. Almost unprecedented.
ALEX PRESS: Yeah. In the United States, not unprecedented but certainly unlike anything we have seen in several decades, certainly in my lifetime. We have still the massive double strike in Hollywood. That is hundreds of thousands of workers, 160,000 just in SAG–AFTRA, another 12,000 of the Hollywood writers. We’ve seen other strikes too across the country and we have seen near-strikes. The Teamsters at UPS came very close to striking and in doing so won an unprecedentedly strong contract.
I always tell people to think on a bigger timeline than, say, an electoral cycle, when we talk about this. This is a culmination of years of this rising working-class progressive socialist movement, that you can draw a throughline through Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, and now a rising, fighting, working-class organized labor movement that is not just clawing back in sessions but going on the offensive. And really, when you get deep down into these movements, you see a lot of them are the same people throughout these years.
A big part of it is also that the pandemic clarified the lines of class and also heightened the risks for workers like auto workers who had to risk, as Shawn Fain said, the possibility that they would catch a disease at work and die or spread it to their family, all while their employers, the CEOs and even the plant managers, got to work from home. There was very little risk at all. So this is sort of, I think, an expression of pent-up frustration and reform efforts and organizing. And I think to just underline it here, I would just say that they have a lot of ground to make up, the auto workers, and they are dead set on trying to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the video game programmers, the significance of them if they go out on strike, who they are?
ALEX PRESS: Yeah, this is again—that’s a reflection of the white-collar workers who have been organizing new unions en masse in a really remarkable way. We might think that video game programmers have very little in common with, say, auto workers, but these are both sets of workers who if you read about what the video game developers are going through—massive overwork, incredible stress, incredible pressure, and huge profits for their employers while they don’t see any of their fair share. So there’s many new union campaigns to look for.
And, as we have heard already on this program, when United Auto Workers strike and if they win, which I believe that they will, that has effects for everybody else. The UAW is the biggest industrial union in the United States. They historically have played a precedent-setting, pace-setting role for the entire working class. And so it’s why we all have to be out there on the picket lines and otherwise supporting them. It will help us, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Alex Press, labor reporter, Jacobin magazine. We will link to your latest article “The UAW Strike Matters for the Entire U.S. Working Class”: https://jacobin.com/2023/09/the-uaw-strike-matters-for-the-entire-us-working-class. And Marcelina Pedraza, electrician at Ford assembly plant in Chicago, member of UAW Local 551.
Coming up, thousands prepare for a major march in New York Sunday to end fossil fuels. We will speak to a climate scientist just arrested in West Virginia for chaining herself to a drill to protest the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. And we will speak to NYU students who have just forced New York University to divest from fossil fuel. This is Democracy Now!, back in a minute.
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