U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont addresses UAW members and others attending the strike rally on Sept.15, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

A red sea surged through downtown Detroit on Friday as hundreds of scarlet-clad autoworkers capped the first day of striking with a lively rally featuring Michigan leaders and labor champion U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

Union members from across the country gathered outside the UAW-Ford Joint Trusts Center on Jefferson Avenue, just a few steps from the Detroit North American International Auto Show. UAW President Shawn Fain, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and others called for workers to be treated with respect and dignity, while Sanders forcefully denounced “corporate greed.” Fain said the UAW expects to go back to the bargaining table this weekend. 

“Over the last 50 years, there’s been a massive redistribution of wealth, except it’s gone in the wrong direction – instead of going from the top to the bottom, it’s gone from the bottom up to the top,” Sanders said. “We’re going to reverse that trend. If the ruling class of this country wants a redistribution of wealth, we’re going to give it to them.”

The UAW has never before organized strikes against each of the Big Three automakers — General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis, which now owns the former Fiat-Chrysler. Three plants across the country were activated to strike after midnight Thursday, including the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne. Ford representatives temporarily laid off 600 employees at the Wayne plant, citing impacts to operations caused by the strike.

Lorenzo Whitfield Local 12 Toledo, Ohio, on Sept. 15, 2023, at the UAW rally outside the UAW-Ford National Programs Center. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Leaders at the Big Three say they’ve negotiated in good faith and provided generous offers to UAW leadership. However, Fain says the deals don’t go far enough. Here are the UAW demands:

  • 40 percent wage increase over the next four years, 46 percent when compounded 
  • Cost-of-living increases
  • 32-hour work week with 40-hour pay 
  • A cap on the number of temporary workers, and convert them to full-time seniority employment after 90 days
  • More paid time off and additional holidays
  • Job security through what is called the Working Family Protection Program, which includes the right to strike over plant closures 
  • Significantly increase retiree pay

Workers who attended the Friday rally said they’re optimistic that Fain’s strategy will put significant pressure on automakers and result in a swift resolution. But no one can say for sure how the situation will unfold. Many wore buttons with slogans like “we don’t want to strike, but we will.” 

Jacqueline Drake-Myers, 64, has worked at the Warren Stamping Plant for 13 years, and put in 24 years total with Stellantis. She’s a member of UAW Local 869 and lives in Detroit. Drake-Myers has moved three times after plants in other states closed. She said she’s fighting for cost of living adjustments so wages keep up with the rapid pace of inflation in the last few years. 

UAW members, lawmakers and others rally outside the UAW-Ford National Programs Center in Detroit on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

The Warren Stamping Plant has not yet been selected as a strike target, so Drake-Myers is working without a contract. That leaves her in a vulnerable position and has driven a wedge between workers and management, she said. Drake-Myers worried about being fired over a minor issue. 

It’s not her first rodeo. Drake-Myers said she’s tucked away savings and cut back on expenses in case of an extended strike.

“My steak will be baloney,” she joked. 

Detroit resident Christina Jolly, 50, is the daughter of a retired UAW worker. Jolly said the auto industry no longer allows young people to buy homes or sustain a middle-class lifestyle. 

“We’re not greedy, we’re asking for our fair share,” Jolly said. “Treat us with equity. Treat us like we matter.” 

Sean Crawford, 41, has 15 years in with GM. He currently works at the Warren Technical Center. Crawford said he hopes the strike inspires workers in other industries to “realize their power” and form unions. Without the UAW, he has no doubt company leaders would hoard profits while treating workers “like machines.”

“We’ve got to try something new,” Crawford said. “What we were doing wasn’t working.”

Dale Mata, 58, has worked at the General Motors Flint Assembly since 2015 and built cars for GM for 28 years. Mata said he feels the Big Three have been dishonest about the negotiation efforts – Mata is well aware of “politics being played in public.” He criticized executives like GM CEO Mary Barra for claiming the company’s offers have been fair. 

Barra said Friday she is “extremely frustrated and disappointed” by the UAW strike. 

“We don’t need to be on strike right now,” she said during a CNBC interview. “I think we have a very generous offer on the table right now.”

Mata said he’s fighting for temporary part-time workers who are paid less and have fewer benefits than full-time workers. Mata said GM has relied heavily on a class of workers that has little guarantee of being rolled into full-time status and enjoying a quality wage. 

“They’re working just as hard as the guy next to them making twice as much,” Mata said. 

UAW Region 1A director Laura Dickerson speaks to workers at a rally outside the UAW-Ford National Programs Center in Detroit. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Dontell Adams, 34, is a Southfield resident working at the Warren Truck Assembly for the last three years, which produces the Jeep Wagoner and Ram Classic. He’s a member of the UAW Local 140. He’s a temporary part-time employee who makes $17 per hour.

“I’m feeling anxious. Nervous (about) the lack of assurance for our rollover into full-time employment.”

Adams said supplemental employees like himself don’t receive many of the benefits afforded to other full-time employees like dental care, tuition reimbursements, profit sharing and annual bonuses. Part-time workers also deal with unreliable schedules with no guarantee of 40 hours per week. He can’t pick up another job because he can be called in to work with short notice and threatened with termination if he doesn’t come in.

“We’re like a washed up rag,” Adams said of temporary workers.

“Don’t we deserve the same quality of life? Don’t we deserve to know we’re able to feed our families? I’m here working for billionaires just asking for a slice of the pie. You could double my salary right now and still make billions of dollars.”

Adams entered the auto industry after seeing three uncles – including one who worked at the same plant – make a good living. He can’t afford the trucks he builds. Several auto workers who spoke with BridgeDetroit lamented the same reality.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *