Sept. 14 at 11:59 p.m., during the third shift, the United Auto Workers’ contract with Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis will expire. At that moment, if an agreement has not yet been reached between the union and the multi-billion dollar auto corporations, auto workers all across the country will walk out of their job sites. As nearly 150,000 UAW members gear up for what could be a historic strike, union leaders declare that they are prepared, and ready for a long haul.
Cleveland is home to two facilities whose workers are represented by the UAW. At the UAW Local 1005 office in Parma, Ohio, local union President Dan Schwartz describes the precarity of workers at the “Big Three” (Ford, GM, and Stellantis): “It’s pretty stressful for a lot of people. We have a lot of young workers that live tight. They have kids and a house payment, and in this economy everything is rising — the price of food, the price of gas, college, school, books, clothes. […] The economy goes up but our pay doesn’t go up.”
During the 2008 recession, the UAW was forced to make a series of concessions to bail out the Big Three. These included “a two-tier pay system with lower salaries for ‘non-core’ jobs, a 401k plan instead of a pension for new hires, and a pay freeze, including an end to cost-of-living increases” — concessions which, according to Schwartz, amounted to somewhere between $30,000 to $40,000 a year per member.
Fifteen years after these bailouts, the Big Three’s profits have skyrocketed, with auto companies raking in billions of dollars in profit each year. “These executives have been paid gross amounts of money,” says Schwartz. “General Motors has the highest paid CEO across the Big Three, to the tune of almost 29 million dollars a year. There’s families right now that are struggling to make ends meet that work for one of the Big Three … They can barely pay their bills, let alone put some away for retirement. They have to pay for healthcare, and they can’t even afford to buy the cars and trucks that they build.”
Among the UAW’s demands for this year’s contract negotiations are an end to the two-tier system, the restoration of COLA (Cost-Of-Living-Adjustment), the right to strike over plant closures and a 40% wage increase to match the salary increases of the Big Three’s corporate CEO’s. But Schwartz makes clear that these contract negotiations and the potential strike are about more than just increasing wages for UAW members: “To the people who are not in unions, we set the tone. Other companies are going to see what we pay and what we offer, and they’re not going to be able to get anybody to go work for them. […] We set the tone so that other working class people can say, ‘Hey, that’s not right. I deserve more than this.’”
The UAW’s bold demands could set the tone not only for future labor standards, but for the possibilities of working-class movements across the nation. Such tenacious demands for such a large quantity of working people could mean that successes here will validate demands across workplaces and different trades, setting the stage for a more confident and audacious labor movement in the United States.
As the remaining days of the contract come to an end, the UAW is prepared for a strike that could last a long time before they are able to reach an agreement with the Big Three. “Last time, [the strike] went on for forty-something days,” said Schwartz. “This time it could go even longer. […] This is the sacrifice that these people down the street in this plant, and in the other UAW Big Three facilities are willing to make. We’re willing to stand up to corporate greed and tell them ‘Hey, it’s our time.’”