UAW Makes Good on Strike Pledge as Contract Talks Stall

The strikes target production of some of the Detroit Three's most popular vehicles.

Joseph Szczesny

September 15, 2023

4 Min Read
UAW strike Fain 9-15-23 (Getty)
UAW President Fain (foreground, left) meets with members outside Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI, as union launches selective strikes against Detroit Three automakers.Getty Images

The UAW is setting out pickets at three critical Detroit Three assembly plants as union President Shawn Fain made good on his threat to stage selective strikes when last-minute negotiations failed to produce a settlement with the automakers.

After midnight, walkouts began at the General Motors assembly plant in Wentzville, MO outside St. Louis; Stellantis’ Jeep complex in Toledo, OH; and Ford’s Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne, MI, where the strike was limited to final assembly area and the paint shop.

The strikes target production of some of the Detroit Three's most popular vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Gladiator, Ford Bronco and Ranger, Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon.

Fain warns more plants could be added to the UAW’s novel “stand-up strike” strategy if there is no movement during the negotiations. The selective strikes, which involve about 13,300 of the 146,000 autoworkers belonging to the UAW, mark the first time in the union’s 88-year history that it has staged walkouts at all three automakers at the same time.

UAW strike 9-15-23 Wayne 2 (Getty).jpg

UAW strike 9-15-23 Wayne 2 (Getty)

Meanwhile, the UAW has picked up support from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ car-haul division, which moves vehicles from assembly plants to car dealers. “You can be sure there is no division in America’s labor movement today. And you are urged to remember that Teamsters don’t cross picket lines,” union President Sean O’Brien said as the strike deadline approached.

 As the 11:59 p.m. EDT Thursday deadline for contract expiration approached, the automakers expressed frustration with the union’s tactics during the negotiations and the pace of the talks, which intensified in the past week.

The mood at GM seemed to be one of frustration, while Stellantis seemed almost resigned to the walkout. Fain contends all three companies have had the union’s proposals since early August but failed to address them.

“We are extremely disappointed by the UAW leadership's refusal to engage in a responsible manner to reach a fair agreement in the best interest of our employees, their families and our customers,” Stellantis says in a statement after the strikes began. “We immediately put the Company in contingency mode and will take all the appropriate structural decisions to protect our North American operations and the Company.”

GM also says it was disappointed the union had chosen to strike one of its plants.

“The UAW has informed GM that they are on strike at Wentzville Assembly in Missouri as of 11:59 p.m. We are disappointed by the UAW leadership's actions, despite the unprecedented economic package GM put on the table, including historic wage increases and manufacturing commitments.

“We will continue to bargain in good faith with the union to reach an agreement as quickly as possible for the benefit of our team members, customers, suppliers and communities across the U.S. In the meantime, our priority is the safety of our workforce.” GM says.

“We know a strong GM is important to all of us,” GM Chair Mary Barra says, adding the automaker is offering union workers the biggest raise in the company’s 115-year history. “Remember, we had a strike in 2019 and nobody won.” GM is offering a 20% pay increase; the union announced at the outset of the talks that it was seeking 40% raises.

At Ford, which is facing the first walkout by its blue-collar workers since 1976, the walkout is being greeted with a combination of dismay and anger toward the UAW’s high command. CEO Jim Farley says meeting the union’s proposals would push Ford into bankruptcy.

“Unfortunately, the UAW’s counterproposal tonight showed little movement from the union’s initial demands submitted Aug. 3. If implemented, the proposal would more than double Ford’s current UAW-related labor costs, which are already significantly higher than the labor costs of Tesla, Toyota and other foreign-owned automakers in the United States that utilize non-union-represented labor,” Ford says in a statement.

UAW strike 9-15-23 Wayne (Getty).jpg

UAW strike 9-15-23 Wayne (Getty)

Farley says Ford has made a generous wage offer, eliminated wage tiers, restored cost-of-living pay increases and increased vacation time. The union disputes his claim that the company offered to end tiers, where lower-seniority workers are paid less.

Farley says if the UAW proposal had been implemented in 2019, instead of generating approximately $30 billion in profits over four years, Ford would have incurred a loss of around $15 billion and would have faced bankruptcy by now.

Ford’s pitch to the union emphasizes the company exceeded the commitments made to the union. The company hired 5,600 more workers than required by Ford’s 2019 contract with the UAW, according to company officials.

Michelle Kaminski, a professor of human resources and labor relations at Michigan State University, says in an email: “Automotive employees have lost substantial economic ground since the 2008 economic crisis. They reluctantly agreed to a tier system to keep the companies afloat. They have lost their cost-of-living increases. 

“Now, in the post-COVID environment, with highly profitable companies, a tighter labor market…and moderate levels of inflation, the social and economic factors influencing the bargaining process are far more favorable to the union than they have been in decades,” she says.

“So, I would expect the UAW leadership to take advantage of this moment to get as much as they can for the membership.  This is their best opportunity in recent memory.” 

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