Strike! United Auto Workers declares historic strike against Detroit Three automakers.

By: - September 15, 2023 9:23 am

UAW President Shawn Fain talks to picketing workers at Ford-owned Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan the night of September 14, 2023. (photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

The United Auto Workers (UAW) declared a strike at midnight Thursday after negotiations for a new contract failed with “Detroit Three” auto manufacturers: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.

This is the first time in the union’s history it has gone on strike against all three automakers. UAW President Shawn Fain told members at the picket line at the Ford-owned Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne shortly after the strike began that the goal was never to strike; it was for companies to do the right thing by their workers.

“There’s a billionaire class and then there’s the rest of us. We’re all expected to sit back and take the scraps and live paycheck to paycheck and scrape to get by as second class citizens,” Fain said. “This isn’t just about the UAW. This is about working people in this country. No matter what you do in this country you deserve your fair share of equity.

In a crowd of hundreds, Fain answered the question of, “How long will the strikes last?”

His answer: “As long as we have to, one day more than these companies want to hold out.”

The White House announced Friday morning that President Joe Biden will address the strike later in the day.

The United Auto Workers Union represents nearly 150,000 auto workers and after failing to come to an agreement with all three major auto manufacturers, workers walked out Thursday night and joined picket lines at three plants: Ford’s Michigan Assembly, GM’s Wentzville plant in Missouri and Stellantis’ Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.

The UAW is following through on its “Stand Up Strike” plan, where rather than all plants striking together, select plants will be informed to “stand up and walk out.” The UAW says this will give them room to escalate the strike and “keep the companies guessing.”

Those workers being asked to continue working without a contract still have rights, the UAW instructs on its Stand Up Strike page, and should continue communication with the union for instruction and resources.

Striking UAW workers (Photo by Anna Liz Nichols)

In August, 97% of UAW’s members voted to approve a strike, with Fain saying at the time, “The Big Three have been breaking the bank while we have been breaking our backs. … Our union’s membership is clearly fed up with living paycheck-to-paycheck while the corporate elite and billionaire class continue to make out like bandits.”

The union asked for 32 hour work weeks, as well as around a 40% pay increase over four years and improvements in benefits like pensions and more paid time off.

Many on the Ford picket line say they have given the company decades of their time and worked, at times, 80 hour weeks to help keep things running and make the billionaire leaders more money while the wealth has not trickled down to them.

The union will not be the first to budge, Marie Felice of Westland said after 27 years of loyalty to Ford. She says after everything workers have sacrificed, blood, sweat and tears, it’s a slap in the face to have to strike.

“To be in there instead of being with my family. My children have missed out on a lot of time with me,” Felice said. “We sacrifice a lot of time with our families. I mean, I have to work 70 hours a week to lead a reasonably normal, comfortable life.”

Ahead of the strike Ford released a statement saying if the company accepted the UAW’s latest counterproposal, it 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.”

Stellantis said in a statement that it was “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. 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.”

And GM issued a statement that they 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.”

On the Ford picket line, Fain said “shame” on the companies for not treating their workers fairly, while those companies turn massive profits.

According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, profits at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis increased 92% from 2013 to 2022, totaling $250 billion. Forecasts for 2023 expect more than $32 billion in additional profits. CEO pay at the Detroit Three has jumped by 40% during the same period and the companies paid out nearly $66 billion in shareholder dividend payments and stock buybacks.

Plant employee Hass Beydoun says he’s happy to strike, simply grateful that union leadership isn’t taking the lack of negotiation lying down, but it makes him sad that things have come to this.

“We’re standing up for ourselves,” Beydoun said, having worked for Ford for 28 years. “We finally have a president who is fighting for our rights, for the small people. … We’ve given them everything.”

The impact of the strike will not be reserved to just the auto manufacturers and the workers and will likely have a widespread impact on the economy. Michigan, where the domestic auto industry was born more than a century ago, is facing the hardest economic hit.

An analysis coming out of the University of Michigan estimates even a one week strike could result in 28,000 jobs being lost statewide.

The last time UAW auto workers went on strike in 2019, 50,000 GM workers walked out for six weeks, costing GM $3.6 billion, according to Reuters.

In a statement Friday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. urged the automakers to come back to the table.

“When the auto industry was struggling, UAW members voluntarily reduced their benefits to help these companies survive, and when the industry collapsed during the financial crisis, taxpayers bailed them out. Now as business is booming, profits are sky-high, and CEOs are being rewarded with double-digit raises—suddenly the Big 3 are claiming that the well has dried up,” Casey said. “Striking is always a last resort for workers, who risk losing their health care and may never make up the wages lost. I stand in solidarity with the United Auto Workers as they fight for their fair share.”

Earlier on Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expressed hope that the union and Big Three could continue talking and possibly reach a resolution.

Consumers face higher car prices, lower inventory if auto workers strike

While at the annual North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Whitmer responded to being asked about the federal and state government effort to help work out a deal by saying, “I think that we are all doing our best to keep both parties at the table until there is resolve.”

Fain said earlier on Thursday that the three automakers had made progress, offering around 20% in pay increases over the course of around four years, but they still were far from meeting “key priorities.”

U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., said in a statement Friday that he supported the workers’ action. In July, Fetterman, chair of the Senate nutrition subcommittee, introduced legislation that would make striking workers eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Under current federal law, workers on strike and their households can only collect SNAP benefits if they qualified for the program before going on strike.

Fetterman introduces bill to allow striking workers to collect SNAP benefits

“All these workers are asking for is for their basic needs to be met, to share in the enormous wealth they have created for their companies. They want to get back to work and do their jobs,” Fetterman said. “We must not forget – especially on days like today – that the union way of life is sacred. It’s what built this nation, it’s what built Pennsylvania, and it’s what built the middle class. I am always going to come down on the side of workers. Solidarity forever.”

Lauren Scaglione, of Chelsea, is hopeful that the strike will work and automakers will concede to the union’s demands. She’s worked at the plant for three years and says the strike is a longtime coming.

“We put in a lot of physical labor, this is an assembly plant. It’s heavy stuff, Scaglione said. “Most of us, I feel, are surviving, not living. The wages, the breakdown of our bodies on the job, it’s not enough.”

This article was updated at 9:47 a.m., Friday, Sept. 15, 2023 to add a statement from U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, and at 10:20 a.m. to add a statement from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.

Capital-Star Editor Kim Lyons contributed reporting.

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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols covers government and statewide issues, including criminal justice, environmental issues, education and domestic and sexual violence. Anna is a former state government reporter for The Associated Press and her work has been seen in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe, among other publications, and most recently was a reporter for the Detroit News. Anna is a graduate of Michigan State University, where she studied journalism and environmental studies.