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With unprecedented strike underway, autoworkers want to 'play hardball'

Members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union march through the streets of downtown Detroit following a rally on the first day of the UAW strike in Detroit, Michigan, on September 15, 2023. Workers at the "Big Three" US auto manufacturers went on strike on September 15, 2023.
Mathew Hatcher
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union march through the streets of downtown Detroit following a rally on the first day of the UAW strike in Detroit, Michigan, on September 15, 2023. Workers at the "Big Three" US auto manufacturers went on strike on September 15, 2023.

Autoworkers' emotions — from excitement to fear and apprehension — are running high as their union, the United Auto Workers, rolls out an unprecedented strike against the Big Three automakers.

For the first time in history, the UAW is striking against all three major Detroit automakers at once after failing to reach a deal on pay, pensions and other benefits with the auto companies.

Under the bold gamble unveiled by UAW President Shawn Fain, workers at only three Midwestern plants — a General Motors plant in Wentzville, Mo., a Stellantis plant in Toledo, Ohio, and part of a Ford plant in Wayne, Mich. — walked off the job on Friday. They represent about 9% of the nearly 150,000 UAW members employed by the three companies.

Fain put workers at other plants on notice that they could be called on to walk out at any time. He has said the option for a strike of all members remains on the table.

"Play hardball"

Jerry Coleman, a longtime temporary employee working 70 hours a week at the Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, has welcomed Fain's tough rhetoric.

But on Friday morning, as he headed to his union hall and then to the picket line, Coleman said he was underwhelmed by the strike launch.

"Honestly, I think he was soft," he said of Fain. "To get back what we've lost, I feel he should have hit six to 10 major plants and facilities to let them know, 'Hey, look, this is serious!'"

If the automakers are going to play hardball, Coleman says, then play hardball.

Workers at the "Big Three" US auto manufacturers went on strike on September 15, 2023, in a first-ever coordinated action to demand better pay and benefits, testing the resilience of the U.S. economy and threatening President Joe Biden's 2024 re-election momentum.
Matthew Hatcher / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Workers at the Big Three U.S. auto manufacturers went on strike on Friday in a first-ever coordinated action to demand better pay and benefits, testing the resilience of the U.S. economy and threatening President Biden's 2024 reelection momentum.

Fain has defended his strategy.

"This is going to create confusion for the companies," Fain told union members earlier this week. "It's going to keep them guessing on what might happen next, and it's going to turbocharge the power of our negotiators to be as effective as possible."

But the strategy has created some confusion and frustration among workers, especially those whose plants are not yet on strike.

Working under an expired contract

Comments on the UAW's Facebook page range from "What's the point of a strike if we ALL don't strike at the same time?!" to "So much for solidarity." Others voiced concerns that their jobs may be at risk now that their contract has expired.

The UAW tried to allay those fears, putting out a video ahead of the strike explaining that most of the contract terms remain in effect, including that management still has to bargain with the union over any changes to wages, hours or working conditions.

"They don't become at-will employees just because the contract has expired," says Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard Law's Center for Labor and a Just Economy.

As someone who's followed labor movements for decades, Block says she was intrigued to see Fain choosing to strike all three automakers at once, but limited to one plant at each to start.

"I think it gives him maximum flexibility at this point where they're really at the beginning of this new phase of their negotiations," she says.

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain speaks outside of the UAW Local 900 headquarters across the street from Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan on September 15, 2023.
Matthew Hatcher / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks outside of UAW Local 900 headquarters across the street from Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on Friday.

Trust in UAW president's strategy

There was a shared sense of excitement Friday outside the plants on strike, with crowds cheering and chanting, drivers honking in support, and only the occasional heckler shouting at people to get back to work.

"I really trust Shawn Fain right now, and I think that he's got a good plan. I don't think he's just doing it off the seat of his pants," said Kyle Bendert, who works on the engine line at the Ford plant in Wayne, Mich.

Bendert expressed some concern that the $500-a-week strike pay is far less than his regular paycheck. But, he says, it'll be worth it if the UAW delivers the contracts workers deserve.

"Working in the Big Three used to be like the best job you could get in manufacturing. And now we're living paycheck to paycheck," he says.

The Wentzville Assembly Plant in Wentzville, Missouri, produces the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, both trucks, as well as two models of vans. Workers at the plant went on strike on September 15, 2023.
Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The Wentzville Assembly Plant in Wentzville, Mo., produces the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, both trucks, as well as two models of vans. Workers at the plant went on strike Friday.

Targeting plants that make popular cars

Even with just three plants on strike, the economic impacts could quickly become significant given the popularity of the vehicles they produce, says Tyler Theile, vice president and director of public policy for Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing, Mich.

The striking Stellantis plant makes Jeep Wranglers and Gladiators. The striking Ford plant makes Ford Broncos and Rangers. The striking GM plant produces the Chevy Colorado, the GMC Canyon and two different vans, according to the UAW.

Theile's group estimates that a 10-day work stoppage could result in as many 25,000 fewer vehicles rolling off the line at those three plants.

"This is not a coincidence. These are vehicles that consumers want and need, and these are plants where the production volumes are high and efficient," she says.

Notably, though, the facility that produces the top-selling Ford F-150 truck has not yet been targeted for a strike, nor has the UAW chosen to walk out on engine or other parts plants that may have a direct impact on a greater number of other facilities.

Holding out hope

Coleman, who makes $19.76 an hour after 5 1/2 years at the Stellantis plant in Toledo, says despite his initial disappointment in the size of the strike, he still has faith in Fain.

"I believe he's going to hold out," he says. "These big companies don't understand how much stress and pain we put on our body, and missing our family's lives."

But Fain does, he says, and that matters.

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

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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