Monday, May 20, 2024

‘We build those cars’: US workers on Ford picket line demand a fair share | Automotive industry

Under blue skies in Wayne, Michigan, a half-hour outside Detroit, the mood was festive but defiant as hundreds of autoworkers settled in for the first weekend of picketing at the entrances to Ford’s Michigan assembly plant.

Ford’s workers were among the first to go out in a series of targeted strikes that marked the beginning of the largest industrial action taken by US car workers in over a decade.

A chorus of horns blared in support from Michigan Avenue, a busy highway running through the nation’s automotive heartland. Strikers turned away semi-truck after semi-truck trying to deliver parts to the plant, which produces the Ranger and Bronco. “Hell no, you’re not coming in here, keep it moving,” a worker yelled.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) president, Shawn Fain, called the strike after failing to reach new union contracts with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis before a midnight Thursday deadline.

The strikers’ message: they’re no longer accepting the automakers’ “corporate greed”. They point to the companies’ record profits in recent years and huge stock buyback programs that are enacted as workers struggle to make ends meet.

Ford’s CEO, Jim Farley, briefly stopped by to meet with picketers. Several workers near retirement weren’t particularly impressed by the gesture. He made $29m a year, they noted, while hourly workers were “fighting to get money to survive after we leave here”, said plant worker Stu Jackson. “How many years do we even have left to live after we retire? Ten years?” asked Jackson, who highlighted the toll factory work exacts on workers’ bodies and health.

“Did you see Farley in his tailored European suit? Wasn’t he sharp?” Jackson asked. “He looks like the $29m man. Those nice shoes.

“And look at us,” Jackson added with indignation, motioning to the small group dressed in jeans, T-shirts and sweatpants. “This isn’t fair.”

As Fain has pointed out repeatedly, CEO pay has soared as the car companies have recovered from the 2008/2009 financial crisis. Pay for the big three companies’ bosses jumped by 40% between 2013 and 2022. The GM boss, Mary Barra, took home $29m in 2022. Meanwhile, auto manufacturing workers have seen their average real hourly earnings fall 19.3% since 2008, according to the Economics Policy Institute.

Domonique Hicks, a young mother of three who lives in Detroit, said the $16.67-an-hour wage she received was not feeding her children.

“We’re here to take back what Ford took from us,” Hicks said. “They didn’t want to bargain with us so we’re making a statement – if you can make millions and billions, then we deserve something. We build those cars.” The strike will go on for as long as Ford “wants to keep their checkbook in their pocket”, she added.

Among other issues, the union is calling for a 40%-plus pay increase, an end to two-tier wage systems in which new hires are paid significantly less for doing the same work and the restoration of benefits cut to help save the car companies after the 2008/2009 recession drove them to bankruptcy.

United Auto Workers member Shamia Ware walks the picket line during a strike at the Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, on Friday.
United Auto Workers member Shamia Ware walks the picket line during a strike at the Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, on Friday. Photograph: Paul Sancya/AP

Auto executives expressed frustration as the strike entered its first weekend. A Ford spokesman called the UAW’s terms “unsustainable”. “I’m extremely frustrated and disappointed. We don’t need to be in a strike right now,” Barra told CNBC on Friday.

The White House is watching developments closely. On Friday Joe Biden said his team was engaged in trying to find a resolution and called on the car companies to “go further” in their negotiations with striking workers.

“The companies have made some significant offers. But I believe that should go further to ensure record corporate profits mean record contracts,” he said. “Record corporate profits, which they have, should be shared by record contracts for the UAW,” Biden reiterated.

Hicks said she had a message for those who oppose the strike, or worry about how it will affect the economy. “People are hurting. You’re talking about shutting down the economy? [The auto companies] are shutting down the economy because they aren’t putting money back into it, so we’re here to get it.

“How am I supposed to feed my kids?” Hicks asked. “We’re just trying to live and support our family.”

Even with a wage of about $24 an hour after starting at $16 nearly four years ago, plant worker Amanda Robinson says she can barely afford the payments on her car and there’s not much left after bills at the end of the month to raise her three-year-old son.

Working in the plant is not an “easy walk in the park, sit at a desk” job, she said. It was grueling and took a physical toll, Robinson added, and they deserved better wages.

“We’re showing them that we’re not playing,” she said. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes. Everybody is standing behind us.”


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