The United Auto Workers is expanding its strike to 38 automotive parts distribution centers across 20 states—including 13 locations in Michigan—as contract negotiations with Stellantis and General Motors stagnate.
LANSING—Dan Starr remembers when a job at General Motors used to mean something.
When he took a job at GM’s Redistribution Center in Lansing about 15 years ago, he thought he had secured his future—just like his father and brother, who both retired from the same facility, and his mother, uncle, and cousin who all retired after lengthy careers at Oldsmobile.
Building cars in Michigan used to be a sure-fire ticket to the middle class, he said. But as his wages and benefits lagged behind the cost of living, Starr’s American dream was shattered.
“I’ve been here 14.5 years, and I don’t make top wage. I get no retirement—no pension, no benefits when I retire,” Starr said. “My whole family made a living [by working in Michigan’s automotive manufacturing industry], and then it came to what it is now, and you just can’t.”
Starr was among dozens of workers to join the picket line in Lansing on Friday after the United Auto Workers (UAW) union announced that his parts distribution facility was joining a strike that now involves about 18,600 workers at 41 automotive manufacturing facilities nationwide.
UAW President Shawn Fain called for about 5,600 workers to walk out of 38 GM and Stellantis facilities across 20 states on Friday as the nationwide strike heads into its second week.
Ford was spared additional strikes because its executives have reportedly met some of the union’s demands during negotiations over the past week. Fain said GM and Stellantis, so far, have rejected the union’s proposals for cost-of-living increases, profit sharing, and job security—and “are going to need some serious pushing.”
“We’ve made some real progress at Ford,” Fain said during a video announcement on Friday. “We still have serious issues to work through, but we do want to recognize that Ford is showing that they are serious about reaching a deal. At GM and Stellantis, it’s a different story.”
Starr said he hopes the strike leads to higher wages, better benefits, the security of a retirement that includes a pension and healthcare—and a brighter future for the automotive industry.
“This is about solidarity and sticking together,” he said. “Fair wages and benefits aren’t just a problem at our plant, or even the UAW. It’s an issue everywhere. It’s hard to afford anything in life. We all just want them to hurry up and get this settled, because we all just want to work.”
A Fair Share
Over the past decade, the Detroit Three have emerged as robust profit-makers. They’ve collectively posted a net income of $164 billion—with about $20 billion of it from this year alone. The CEOs of all three major automakers also earn more than $21 million per year.
Meanwhile, the workers who build the vehicles say their average pay—which currently amounts to about $75,000 a year—has only climbed about 6% over the last four years. Due to inflation, Michigan auto workers say their wages have less buying power than they did 20 years ago.
Starr thinks it’s still possible for a career in automotive manufacturing to once again lift Michiganders into the middle class, and afford them an opportunity for financial success. But first, GM and other automakers will need to take the union’s demands seriously, he contended.
“It’s possible, if General Motors wants to come to the table and make things happen,” Starr said.
GM CEO Mary Barra reportedly earned nearly $29 million last year, meaning the average worker earning about $75,000 a year would need to work for about 362 years to match her pay.
To help keep pace with rising corporate salaries, the union is asking for 36% general pay raises for its workers over four years—which would reportedly bring starting salaries to about $23 an hour and increase the hourly wages for top-scale assembly workers to more than $43 an hour.
“We aren’t getting paid what we are supposed to. I feel like our CEO is getting all our money,” said Antione Turner, who walked off his job Friday at a GM customer-care center in Belleville.
Turner said after working at GM for the last 10 years, he now makes $31 an hour. On the same picket line, Shelton Matthews, who started at GM three years ago, only makes $20 an hour because the company’s two-tiered wage structure means lower pay for newer workers.
“Pay disparity is the key issue” in the strike, Matthews said. “You’re doing, if not harder work, the same work as the person next to you with significantly less pay.”
Yvonne Vincent told The ‘Gander that temporary workers hired at GM’s distribution facility in Lansing also earn far less than she did when she started more than a decade ago.
“Healthcare after retirement is another huge priority,” she said. “With some of the jobs here, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll need a knee replacement or shoulder surgery. That’s pretty much a guarantee. And when someone retires or leaves, the job duties seem to double.”
In addition to better pay and benefits for both workers and retirees, the UAW has asked for 32-hour work weeks with 40 hours of pay. The UAW also wants to represent workers at new electric vehicle battery factories—most of which are being built by joint ventures with South Korean companies. The union wants those workers at those plants to receive top UAW wages.
The companies have argued they can’t afford to meet the union’s demands because they need to invest profits in a costly transition from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles. They have dismissed out of hand some of the demands, including 40 hours’ pay for a 32-hour work week.
Fain’s not buying those arguments, though, given the company’s massive profit margins.
“They’ve had a decade of record profits. When they’re profitable, it’s all theirs. they want to keep it all,” Fain said in a video released last week. “They’ve made a quarter of a trillion dollars, the big three have in the last decade, $21 billion in profits in the first six months of this year.”
He also argues that the richly profitable automakers can afford to raise workers’ pay to make up for what the union gave up to help the companies withstand the 2007-2009 financial crisis and the Great Recession.
All told, 13 parts distribution facilities across Michigan joined the strike on Friday—including seven Stellantis locations in Marysville, Centerline, Warren, Auburn Hills, and Romulus, as well as six GM locations in Pontiac, Belleville, Ypsilanti, Burton, Swartz Creek, and Lansing.
The strike at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant will also continue.
So far, the UAW is also avoiding targeting plants that make Detroit’s bestsellers—such as the Ford F-150 and Stellantis’ Ram pickups, which represent outsize shares of the companies’ revenue and profit. Fain has said the idea is to gradually increase the pain on automakers.
However, the industry’s supply chain is so integrated that even hitting lower-profile plants can cut into production. Deutsche Bank analysts have estimated that GM, Ford, and Stellantis have lost production of more than 16,000 vehicles since the strike started last week.
The Anderson Economic Group, a firm that tracks the industry, also estimated that the three big automakers have suffered economic losses of more than $1.6 billion over the last week. Automakers and some suppliers have also laid off about 6,000 workers since last Friday.
Still, the impact hasn’t been felt on car lots around the country. It will probably take a few weeks before the strike causes a significant shortage of new vehicles, according to analysts. Prices could rise sooner, however, if the prospect of a prolonged strike triggers panic buying.
Even with Friday’s expansion, the strikes involve only a little over 10% of the UAW’s 146,000 members. That will make the union’s $825 million strike fund last longer, as most members will keep working under the expired contract and pay into the fund.
In the meantime, Fain said he believes the public is on the union’s side, and invited anyone who supports the UAW—”all the way up to the president of the United States”—to join the picket line.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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