Auto Workers: It’s Tough to Buy What We Build

UAW President Shawn Fain has said a contract extension when the current pact expires Sept. 14 is unacceptable, and the union could choose to strike one, two or all three automakers.

Joseph Szczesny

September 12, 2023

4 Min Read
UAW members leaving Warren truck plant (Getty)
UAW negotiating contracts for 146,000 members.Getty Images

They build some of the most expensive sport-utility vehicles sold by Stellantis while they labor on the company’s assembly lines in Detroit.

“They’re nice vehicles, but we can’t afford them,” says Jermaine Williams, a Stellantis employee at the Mack Assembly Plant where vehicles such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, Grand Cherokee Summit and Grand Cherokee Laramie with price tags approaching $70,000 are built.  

Mack Assembly workers’ only chance to get behind the wheel of one of the vehicles they build is when they drive them to the repair area, he adds.

“There is no middle class,” says Williams, who supports the UAW’s push for higher wages in contract negotiations with Stellantis as well as General Motors and Ford. “How can I work for a (car) company and not buy a car?” he says, echoing a common complaint of UAW members, who have seen the value of their wages drop over the past two decades.

“Maybe if you move in with your parents you can buy one,” says friend and co-worker Eric Williams, who notes many of the workers at Mack Assembly are considered temporary employees, making roughly $18 per hour. Full-time workers make about $32 per hour but if they were hired after 2007, they don’t qualify for a pension.

Jeep Grand Cherokee L_21 Mack Assembly.jpg

Jeep Grand Cherokee L_21 Mack Assembly_0


“Hopefully we don’t have to go on strike,” Eric Williams adds. But workers represented by the UAW are looking for genuine economic gains when the current contracts with the Detroit Three automakers expire Sept. 14.

“The UAW has lost a lot of ground over the past 30 years,” adds Jerome Hawkins, who retired from GM in 2016 after a 30-year career in which he was forced to move to plants in four different states. “It is time for the UAW to go back to representing the workers.”

Union President Shawn Fain dismisses claims that the 46% pay increase sought by the UAW will drive up car prices.

Over the past four years the average price of a new car has increased 30% while auto workers’ wages have risen only 6%. During that time, the Detroit Three have made massive profits – a combined $21 billion in just the first six months of this year, Fain says.

“But you don’t hear the media wringing their hands over how Big Three profits are driving up the cost of cars,” says Fain. “You don’t see big, splashy nightly news segments on how consumers will be impacted by companies choosing to spend billions on executive salaries, stock buybacks and special dividends. No, you only hear these concerns when the working class stands up and demands a fair share of the value we produce.”

Fain has said a contract extension past Sept. 14 is unacceptable to the union, and the UAW could choose to strike one, two or all three automakers.

Michelle Kaminski, associate director of undergraduate programs in Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, notes bargaining is a lengthy process, and negotiations on economic issues always heat up as the contract deadline approaches. 

“President Fain is clearly taking a different approach (in) his public statements than previous UAW presidents have. His media presence seems to have the effect of strengthening the solidarity of the members and their commitment to a strike,” Kaminski says in an email to Wards.

“As for the economics:  I expect there will be very large wage increases, as there have been in other industries.  Factors like inflation, the tight labor market during the COVID years and the dissension in the plants among the lower-tier workers mean that there is considerable pressure on the automakers to make big changes,” she says.

Regarding what analysts are saying: “As you know, automotive labor costs are higher in some European countries than in the U.S., so there is room to increase compensation without hurting competitiveness. Furthermore, labor costs remain a relatively small portion of the sticker price of a new vehicle. So, I think there is evidence that even a large increase in labor costs could be absorbed by the automakers,” Kaminiski says, noting a recent Gallup Poll showed about 75% percent of Americans sympathize with the UAW.

John Murphy, a Bank of America auto industry analyst, says during a presentation to the Automotive Press Assn. that items such as the restoration of the automatic cost-of-living adjustments, pensions and even shorter work weeks are non-starters among investors.

According to a new analysis by J.P. Morgan, Detroit’s three automakers “represent about 40% of light-vehicle auto sales (by units) in the U.S., and a strike would disrupt North American vehicle production by roughly 75%.”

Analysts from Morgan Stanley estimate UAW-represented labor costs account for about 4% of the global revenues of the Detroit Three.

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