Under new leadership, the UAW is waging an aggressive campaign to win a new contract at the Big Three automakers. For the first time in decades, UAW workers are mobilizing for contract rallies at Ford, Stellantis, and GM plants ahead of a potential strike.

UAW president Shawn Fain speaks at the Solidarity Sunday rally at the UAW Region 1 office in Warren, Michigan, on August 20, 2023. (Jeff Kowalsky / AFP via Getty Images)

Sunday afternoon at the United Auto Workers (UAW) Region 1 Pavilion in Warren, Michigan, felt a lot like church. Autoworkers came together in sweltering heat to rally each other with fiery speeches, cheers, and songs in the first Big Three contract rally anyone can remember.

The contracts with Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis expire September 14.

“I’ve been told throughout this thing that we’ve set expectations too high. You’re damn right we have, because our members have high expectations, and record profits deserve record contracts,” said UAW president Shawn Fain at the rally. “As a union, we have to lead the fight for economic justice — not just for ourselves but for the entire working class.”

Catchy T-shirt slogans were everywhere: “Same shift, different day,” “Strike Team 2023,” “No Retreat, No Surrender,” “End Tiers,” “Stamping in Solidarity,” “Fain Ain’t Playin’,” and “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”

Not even the heat could separate the throng of people who had gathered in a powerful display of unity, love, and anger.

Kiada Shanklin, a team leader in the quality department at Stellantis’s Jeep Grand Cherokee plant, wore a red shirt declaring: “I have three major reasons to strike.” Her three children each wore shirts: “Reason #1,” “Reason #2,” and “Reason #3.” On the back, the shirts had the image of a clock and the words “Stellantis, you’re on the clock,” “Tick,” and “Tock.”

The shirt designs showed members’ creativity, as do the rallies they are holding, scheduled for Detroit, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, and Louisville, Kentucky, later this week. More are in the offing.

Bringing in Ramen

The UAW hasn’t held any Big Three contract rallies in decades, and members haven’t been called upon to mobilize themselves for a contract campaign in living memory. But Fain, who was elected in March, has been encouraging members to put on their own practice pickets and parking lot rallies, drawing inspiration from the United Parcel Service (UPS) Teamsters’ playbook.

“I’m asking rank-and-file activists all around the country to do everything you can do to get organized in your plant,” he said on Facebook Live August 15. “Our national Organizing Department is putting together weekly virtual trainings that will walk you through how to organize actions at your workplace.”

And members are responding with enthusiasm. At the Sunday rally, crowds grew to hundreds of people waving noisemakers and holding aloft posters with demands. These included ending two-tier pay and benefits, winning back the cost-of-living allowance (a raise pegged to inflation that the union gave up during the Great Recession), a shorter workweek, restoring the defined-benefit pension and retiree health insurance, ensuring job security for workers when plants are shuttered, and making all current temps permanent employees.

At GM’s tech center, skilled trades workers made a show of bringing in and storing big supplies of ramen noodles, a nod to the union’s 1930s history of factory occupations, said Jessie Kelly, a UAW Local 160 member and mold maker who has been talking with her coworkers to answer any questions about their readiness to strike if necessary.

“I was checking on what the pulse on the floor was, because everything is so different now than in 2019,” she said, referring to the last time GM workers went on strike. “Are you ready to strike if that’s what we need to do? And one guy is like, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to strike.’”

She asked him what was wrong. “And he was like, ‘Can we occupy the worksite like they did during the Flint sit-down strike?’”

What’s Going On

Member after member marveled at the change in the union since the Members United slate won a majority on the executive board.

Cassandra Rudolph, of Stellantis’s Sterling Heights Assembly, said the biggest difference was “the transparency.”

“Instead of him [Fain] being closed off, every week he lets us know what’s going on,” said her coworker Joe King. Rudolph added, “Instead of them just popping off and we’re unprepared and don’t understand what’s going on.”

“This is the first time in UAW history the members saw what the union was asking for in negotiations,” District 1 director LaShawn English told the crowd, drawing thunderous applause.

It’s been a long time coming. “I’ve been waiting for this,” said thirty-eight-year GM worker Bill Bagwell in UAW Local 174. “A $10-an-hour raise might keep me on the job. I supported one member, one vote with New Directions [a reform caucus in the 1980s] and I’ve been waiting since then. It took their [recent UAW leaders’] corruptness to give us the glory we deserve.”

“Ready to Show the World What We Deserve”

Lynda Jackson, recording secretary of UAW Local 7, celebrated her thirteenth anniversary with the union this past June, and said she’s never seen anything like Sunday’s rally.

“I’ve never seen the pavilion this packed,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many people engaged and excited, and just ready to show the world what we deserve.”

Jackson says autoworkers deserve higher wages based on the profits they’ve generated: “My mother retired from Ford in 2004, and her top pay was $28 an hour. Our top pay is $31.77. So in twenty years, the top pay only rose about $4.

“We need to be moving with the times. The cost of these vehicles is constantly going up, but our pay isn’t.”

Pandemic-era sacrifices are a sore point. “We were considered essential workers in 2020 and made to go back into these plants to build these vehicles,” Jackson said. “So it’s essential that we be compensated.”

In his presentations on Facebook Live, “honestly, it sounds like Shawn Fain is listening to us,” she said. “Everyone is on the same page, whether you are supplemental — how do you force someone to do all this overtime and only allow them three days off in a year? — or full-time with thirteen years in without a pension.” Supplemental is Stellantis lingo for temporary workers.

“I don’t have a pension. I don’t have retiree health care,” said Jackson, a tier-two worker. “So can you imagine being a recording secretary of a local, and when you go to retire, you just quit? I’m not even a retiree. How big of a slap in the face is that?

“We’re all in the same fight together,” she said. “And what I really like about everything is the updates — it’s showing the world that we’re not being quiet anymore.”

Permanent Jobs Demanded

The top three demands for supplemental and other temp workers are equal health care, permanent employee status, and raises.

Ron Sabatula hired in at $17.46 as a temporary employee after the 2019 strike at GM. His coworkers on the assembly line earn $28 an hour. “But we all do the same job,” he said.

Stellantis has the highest number of temps of the Big Three automakers. A supplemental worker who asked for anonymity for fear of company retaliation said Stellantis workers are paid the least of the Big Three companies.

“Each of the Big Three is posting profits,” he said. “But Stellantis just posted $12 billion in profits in the last six months. That signals to me that they are the most profitable and yet they are the most deeply exploitative of workers on the floor.”

At Stellantis’s Jefferson assembly plant, workers are fired up about converting temporary jobs into permanent ones. “They’re willing to strike for the temporary employees,” the same worker said of his coworkers.

“Let Us Get Some Rest”

Leta Pollard has worked for Stellantis through the various mergers, starting twenty-four years ago when the company was known as Chrysler. Stellantis was formed in 2021 through a merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot, and is the parent company of Jeep, Ram Trucks, and Chrysler.

Generations of her family have worked at Chrysler and Ford, starting in 1969. Her top issues are higher wages, ending tiers, and forced overtime.

“They divided us some years ago,” with the tiers, Pollard said. “But now, we are back, and we are saying, ‘we want back what you took from us.’ That three-tier, two-tier — all of that — needs to be out of there.

“Because we come in, we do the same work. We want the young adults to get the same pay, the same medical benefits that our parents before us stood strong on the picket lines for. We are not going to give it up so you can put more money in your pocket. We want money in our pocket, so we can buy what we build.”

Pollard said people don’t want to work at Stellantis because they are forced to work grueling ten-hour shifts. Starting pay is $15.78. “You don’t want to give us our vacation days,” she said. “You don’t want to give us our personal days when it’s necessary. It’s time out for that. Do you want a well-built car? Let us get some rest. Let us have time with our families.”

What can members do before September 14 to show the companies they mean business? “Wear your buttons,” said Jackson’s coworker Charles Mitchell. “Wear your red. Exercise your right to concerted activity. Hold meetings at break time around the break table. Organize. Mobilize.”


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