The United Auto Workers said its members have ratified new contracts with all of the Big Three automakers, ushering in raises of at least 25 percent over 4½ years and ending an acrimonious strike that brought some of the labor movement’s biggest wins in decades.
UAW President, Shawn Fain, said the UAW will now turn its attention to attempting to unionize the U.S. auto sector beyond General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, as well as other industries. “The Stand Up Strike was just the beginning,” Fain said in a statement Monday. “Now, we take our strike muscle and our fighting spirit to the rest of the industries we represent, and to millions of nonunion workers ready to stand up and fight for a better way of life.” More than two-thirds of UAW workers at Ford and Stellantis backed the contracts, but the vote was closer at General Motors, where some large plants voted against the deal out of concern that veteran workers are receiving a lower raise relative to others. Heightened strike activity and workplace activism this year have helped workers across several U.S. industries win lucrative contracts. Fueled by a tight labor market, two years of high inflation and resurgent enthusiasm for unions, workers are striking in elevated numbers this year and reaping big gains for their pocketbooks. The UAW contracts include raises of at least 25 percent for the highest-paid workers, to more than $40 an hour, and even bigger gains of up to 160 percent for the lowest-paid, who will also reach more than $40 an hour by the end of the contract. The deals come after a long period of worker wages not keeping up with inflation, and after the union gave up some of its benefits around the time of the Great Recession, when the automakers were struggling to survive. The union managed to claw back many of those perks in the new deals, including restoring regular cost-of-living wage adjustments to offset inflation. And it fought to reopen a large Stellantis factory in Belvidere, Ill., in a rare reversal of the plant closings that have harmed industrial communities for decades. “These were just extraordinary wins, especially for those of us who’ve been studying strikes for decades,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor and labor expert at Washington University in St. Louis. “Research has consistently found over the past few decades that most strikes are defensive, rear-guard efforts to protect the status quo … to fend off steep cuts to wages and benefits. A win for labor meant simply returning to the contract they were working under prior to the strike. It didn’t mean actually gaining new ground.”
President Biden, who backed the autoworker strike and joined one picket line in Michigan, hailed the agreements Monday, noting that the deals were already forcing non-unionized automakers to lift wages. “These contracts show that when unions do well, it lifts all workers. Following the UAW’s historic agreements, we’ve seen Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Subaru announce significant wage increases as well. The UAW is fighting hard to ensure that all auto jobs are good, middle-class jobs — and I stand with them in that fight,” Biden said in a statement.
Some workers said they were disappointed that the union did not force the automakers to reinstate defined-benefit pensions and retiree health care for all workers. But the contracts boost the companies’ contributions to 401(k) accounts to equal 10 percent of a worker’s wages. They also offer more paid time off and give workers the right to strike over any plant closures during the life of the contract — a right the UAW views as important to protecting jobs.
Across various U.S. strikes this year, a common theme has been a push to lift the pay of the lowest-paid workers. UPS employees threatened a nationwide shutdown and won their strongest contract in decades this summer, forcing the company to abolish a lower-paid tier of workers and securing 48 percent average raises for part-time workers over five years. About 75,000 Kaiser health-care workers won hardy wage increases, while striking Hollywood actors won the biggest increase in minimum wages in 40 years.
The UAW deals were perhaps most favorable to workers who have spent years stuck in temporary employment status. The new contracts will convert thousands of temp workers to permanent status, giving them better benefits and rapidly lifting their pay to reach the top wage by the end of the contract. “I think it’s really a big win for newer hires and the temps because it finally gives them a path to being permanent,” said Phil Reiter, who has spent 10 years working at a Stellantis Jeep factory in Toledo. He called his own wage hike “decent” but said he voted the deal down because he felt the union could have fought for more by striking longer. “It’s certainly the best contract I’ve seen in my 10 years in the industry, but I don’t think it’s what we set out to do,” Reiter said.
The UAW began its strike in a targeted fashion on Sept. 15, initially shutting down one factory at each company. It broadened the work stoppage over time to include dozens of auto-parts warehouses and several additional factories, including vital plants that make some of the companies’ most profitable pickup trucks and SUVs. Ford chief executive Jim Farley welcomed the ratification, saying the automaker is “very happy for our more than 57,000 UAW-represented employees and their families. Ford believes in rewarding all of our people and growing the middle class in America — and we have shown that with our actions over many years.” Ford is on track to reach full production again at its factories in the coming days and will have to find ways to cut costs to offset the higher labor tab, Farley said. “The reality is that this labor agreement added significant cost, and we are going to have to work very hard on productivity and efficiency to become more competitive,” he said. Stellantis’s top executive in North America, Mark Stewart, said the company will turn its attention to launching eight new electric vehicles in the United States next year. GM chief executive Mary Barra said the deal “rewards our employees, protects the future of the business and allows us to continue to provide good jobs in communities across the U.S.”
The contracts needed a simple majority of votes to pass. About 70 percent of voting Ford and Stellantis workers approved their contracts, UAW spreadsheets show. About 55 percent of GM workers voted yes, after big plants in Wentzville, Mo., Spring Hill, Tenn., Lansing, Mich., and other locations voted the contract down. The UAW faces a mixed environment for unionizing as it attempts to broaden its membership beyond the Big Three. Public support for unions has been steadily rising since the Great Recession and took off during the coronavirus pandemic, with 67 percent of Americans approving of unions this year, according to a recent Gallup survey. That’s the fifth year that approval has exceeded the long-term average of 62 percent. Still, union membership in the United States has plummeted in recent decades, giving the UAW a steeper hill to climb. In the early 1980s, about 60 percent of workers in automobile and auto-parts manufacturing belonged to the UAW or another union, compared with about 16 percent today, according to Rosenfeld, the Washington University labor expert. Overseas automakers and newer manufacturers such as Tesla have made big inroads in the United States with non-unionized workers, often in factories in southern states, where local laws, politics and culture make it harder for unions to organize. Past UAW attempts to unionize these factories have failed. But many of those companies appear concerned about the newly energized UAW, and they have offered their workers big raises in recent weeks in what analysts call a clear attempt to thwart unionization. After the UAW deals were disclosed, Honda said it will raise wages for its U.S. production workers by 11 percent in January, while Toyota said it will raise its top production wage by 9 percent. Hyundai said it will hike factory workers’ pay by 25 percent by 2028.
President Biden speaks to members of the United Auto Workers in Belvidere, Ill., on Nov. 9. (Paul Beaty/AP)