By DON McINTOSH
Autoworkers are quite likely heading for a strike that could shut down the American automobile industry – if executives at the Big Three U.S. automakers balk at giving them a fair contract. And “fair,” to the United Auto Workers (UAW), means undoing concessions that were agreed to by previous union leaders — and giving workers a share of the companies’ recent record-busting profits.
The Big Three are General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. Stellantis was created in the 2021 merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and the French PSA Group; it owns the U.S. auto brands Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge. Contracts for all three expire at 11:59 p.m. ET Sept. 14 and cover roughly 150,000 workers in all.
Together the three companies made $21 billion in profit in the first six months of this year, and $250 billion over the last 10 years.
“Record profits mean record contracts,” said UAW President Shawn Fain in an Aug. 1 Facebook Live event with UAW members.
Record profits also mean automakers have no economic excuse to continue the hated “two-tier” system in which newer hires get worse pay and benefits than more senior union members.
That’s a top priority for Fain, who was elected UAW president in March 2023 as head of a slate of officer candidates committed to reversing concessions made by the previous UAW leadership. His election means the leadership caucus that led UAW for 70 years is out of power. In fact, two former UAW presidents are now in prison. In 2021, 16 top UAW officials were convicted of bribery, embezzlement and other crimes after a multi-year federal investigation. Dennis Williams, UAW president from 2014 to 2018, is serving a 21-month federal prison sentence, and Gary Jones, president from 2018 to 2019, is serving 28 months.
Fain was elected on a platform of ending that corruption, eliminating two-tier, and restoring lost benefits. He’s calling this negotiation the UAW’s “defining moment.”
“These companies better wake up,” Fain said in an Aug. 15 video posted on TikTok, “because this (Sept. 14 contract expiration) is a deadline. It’s not a reference point.”
In the heyday of the UAW, autoworkers were among the best paid workers in America. Today pay under UAW contracts starts as low as $18.04, and can take four years to reach a top wage of more than $30 an hour. In bargaining, the union proposes to:
- END TWO-TIER WAGES AND BENEFITS “It’s wrong to make any worker second class,” the union says in a flier explaining the demand. “We can’t allow it any longer in the UAW. The Teamsters ended tiers at UPS. We’re going to end tiers at the Big Three.”
- RESTORE THE DEFINED BENEFIT PENSION AND RETIREE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL WORKERS Currently workers hired since 2007 have neither.
- INCREASE WAGES 46% OVER FOUR YEARS “Big Three CEOs saw their pay spike 40 percent on average over the last four years. We know our members are worth the same and more.”
- RESTORE COST OF LIVING RAISES — raises determined by inflation, so workers don’t fall behind when prices go up.
- INCREASE PENSION BENEFITS FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 2003, AND RESTORE RETIREE MEDICAL BENEFITS I
- ESTABLISH A 32-HOUR WORK WEEK by granting one day of paid time off per week.
- MAKE ALL CURRENT TEMPS PERMANENT EMPLOYEES
- SECURE THE RIGHT TO STRIKE OVER PLANT CLOSURES In good times and bad, the Big Three have closed auto plants — 65 plants over the last 20 years.
When pattern bargaining with the Big Three broke down in the past, UAW typically chose one company as target of a strike, like GM in 2019, which lost $3.6 billion in earnings over the course of a 40-day strike by 49,000 workers. This time, Fain has let on that UAW may strike all three at once.
UAW has more than $825 million in its strike fund, which pays a stipend to members so they can survive while on strike. And convention delegates recently voted to increase strike pay to $500 per week, up from $275 a week previously. Strike pay starts after the eighth day of a strike or lockout.