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After closure of Fairfax GM plant, UAW gears up to escalate strikes against Big 3 automakers

UAW members attend a solidarity rally amid the union's strike against the Big Three auto makers on Sept. 15, 2023, in Detroit.
Bill Pugliano
Getty Images
UAW members attend a solidarity rally amid the union's strike against the Big Three auto makers on Sept. 15, 2023, in Detroit.

The United Auto Workers could expand its strike against the Big 3 automakers, as the union ramps up pressure amid tough negotiations over a new contract. This week, General Motors temporarily laid off most of the 2,000 unionized workers at its assembly plant in Kansas City, Kansas.

Updated September 22, 2023 at 6:19 PM ET

The United Auto Workers union will expand its strike against two of the Big Three automakers, ramping up pressure on the companies to reach deals on new contracts — with President Biden set to join the historic strike in an extraordinary move of support.

UAW workers at 38 GM and Stellantis parts distributions centers, spread across 20 states, walked off the job at 12 p.m. ET on Friday after UAW President Shawn Fain said the two companies had failed to budge on key issues in ongoing talks for a new contract.

Fain said the union would not expand its strike against Ford, citing progress on its talks with the automaker, although an existing strike at a plant in Wayne, Mich., would continue.

Fain, donning a camouflage UAW-branded shirt during a Facebook Live address, doubled down on the union's willingness to keep broadening the strikes as negotiations continue.

"This expansion will also take our fight nationwide. We will be everywhere from California to Massachusetts, from Oregon to Florida," Fain said. "Across the country, people are going to know that the UAW is ready to stand up for our communities, and ready to stand up against corporate greed.".

Biden to march with UAW workers

Fain also invited President Biden to join workers on the picket line — and Biden later confirmed he would travel to Michigan next week.

"Tuesday, I'll go to Michigan to join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create," Biden tweeted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"It's time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs."

Former President Donald Trump – the front-runner in the GOP primary race — has also said he plans to go to Detroit next week.

Dealerships to be impacted by strikes

Roughly 5,600 workers at GM and Stellantis distribution centers across the country will join the approximately 13,000 employees at three Midwest auto plants who were thefirst to walk off the job last week, when the union's contracts with the automakers expired.

This latest expansion will strategically hit GM and Stellantis facilities that supply car parts to dealerships. It also spotlights the two-tier wage system that the UAW is fighting to eliminate, as some workers at these parts distrubution centers have a lower maximum pay rate than workers elsewhere.

UAW members hold signs outside after walking out from the GM parts distribution center in Bolingbrook, Ill., on Sept. 22, 2023. President Biden said he would join workers on the picket line in Michigan next week.
Kamil KrzaczynksiI / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
UAW members hold signs outside after walking out from the GM parts distribution center in Bolingbrook, Ill., on Sept. 22, 2023. President Biden said he would join workers on the picket line in Michigan next week.

Fain's so-called "stand up" strike strategy is intended to keep Ford, General Motors and Stellantis on their toes with sudden, targeted strikes at strategic locations, rather than having all of the nearly 150,000 UAW auto workers walk off their jobs at once.

Ford is "serious about reaching a deal," union says

Fain outlined the UAW's progress with Ford this week on key sticking points. He said Ford has, notably, agreed to reinstate a cost of living adjustment that was suspended in 2009, grant the union the right to strike over plants closures and convert all temporary employees to full-time status.

GM and Stellantis have not budged on those issues so far, Fain said, adding that the union still has outstanding concerns about Ford's offer, too.

"We still have serious issues to work though — but we do want to recognize that Ford is showing that they're serious about reaching a deal," Fain said, explaining the UAW's decision to refrain from ramping up its strike against Ford. "At GM and Stellantis, it's a different story."

The UAW is demanding substantial improvements in the new contract, including a 40% wage increase, saying the union accepted significant concessions in 2007, just when the global financial crisis was starting to take shape.

Automakers lay off workers

The automakers have responded with temporary layoffs, blaming the supply disruptions caused by the strikes.

General Motors has temporarily laid off most of the approximately 2,000 unionized workers at its Fairfax assembly plant in Kansas as a result of the ongoing UAW strikes. The other two companies have also announced temporary layoffs at a smaller scale.

So far, the companies have failed to present wage offers that the union sees as adequate, though the automakers say they've put generous offers on the table.

The UAW has rejected the companies' offers so far, saying the automakers can do more after earning record profits in recent years. The union has also cited the big pay earned by CEOs, including GM leader Mary Barra who made nearly $29 million in 2022 — 362 times the median GM employee's paycheck, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

The two sides also remain at odds over other key economic issues, including the restoration of pension and retiree health care and cost of living adjustments — all benefits that the UAW gave up before and during the Great Recession.

"We haven't had a raise in years, a real raise," said Gil Ramsey, a Ford employee who's on strike in Wayne, Mich. "And everything that we gave up when the company was down on the ropes — we haven't even got that back yet."

Additional reporting by Camila Domonoske, Andrea Hsu and Asma Khalid

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye covered business news for Reuters. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she has also worked as a reporter and producer for listener-funded radio station KPFA, a researcher at Berkeley Law's Human Rights Investigations Lab and an editor of student-run newspaper The Daily Californian.
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