Auto Workers Ratify New Contracts at the Big 3
A previous version of this article was published on October 31.
After a six-week escalating strike, the Auto Workers (UAW) ratified agreements with each of the Big 3 automakers. The deals are a sharp about-face from decades of concessions.
The new contracts go further than many people thought possible, on issues that the companies had insisted were off the table. Stellantis agreed to reopen its idled Belvidere, Illinois, assembly plant. The companies will include most new battery plant workers in their master agreements.
While the contracts don’t abolish tiers for benefits, they mostly get rid of the wage tiers the Big 3 had created to drive down pay. Some workers will see their pay more than double.
The gains are a testament to the UAW’s aggressive strategy under its new leaders, which ramped up the strikes slowly at first and then faster until the companies caved one by one. The strategy threw the companies off guard and kept them guessing throughout.
The Stand-Up Strike began September 15 when 13,000 workers walked out at three Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis assembly plants; by the end it grew to 50,000, out of 146,000 UAW members at the Big 3. The agreements came after a major escalation: striking each company’s most profitable truck plant.
Workers approved the deals at GM, Ford, and Stellantis this week.
At Ford and Stellantis, two-thirds voted in favor. But at GM, the numbers were close. Just 55 percent of workers voted yes, reflecting workers’ heightened expectations and frustration with years of givebacks. Many higher-seniority assembly plant workers at all three companies voted no, saying the raises and retirement gains were not enough.
“They wanted higher increases in pay, higher than the 25 percent, and they wanted it all up front,” said Katie Deatherage, the recently elected president of Local 2250 at GM’s plant in Wentzville, Missouri. “Pensions and post-retirement health care were a huge topic and have been for a long long time.”
Deatherage estimates that 70 to 75 percent of workers at her plant have been hired since 2007, meaning they don’t get a pension or retiree health care. Still, in her 20 years at GM, “it’s the best contract I’ve seen in my career.” She voted yes.
The UAW says each year of each deal is worth more to members than the entire 2019 contract. In fact, according to the union, the new deals are worth more than the last four contracts combined.
They include 25 percent wage increases over four and a half years, including 11 percent immediately, and they reinstate cost-of-living adjustments, a major goal. Combined, that will bring top pay for production workers above $42 by 2028, up from the current $32, while skilled trades will earn more than $50 an hour. Starting pay for permanent workers will rise from $18 to $28.
Many workers will see larger increases. It will now take three years to get to top pay, rather than eight, and members currently on this progression will get immediate 20 to 46 percent bumps.
Workers at the many plants that had been on a lower wage scale, such as axle and components plants and parts distribution centers, will now be on the same scale as other Big 3 workers. This includes GM Subsystems, an invented category where GM employees in the same plants were under separate, inferior contracts.
Workers in these plants had been on a lower tier in many cases since 2007; for example, two Ford axle plants worked under a $16.25 to $22.50 scale. They’ll see immediate raises of 53 to 88 percent. These groups were voting heavily in favor of the deals.
Full-time temporary workers with more than 90 days’ service will be converted to permanent status immediately. Future temps will become permanent employees after nine months, and those nine months will count toward their progression to top rate. For two decades the Big 3 have kept temps on for years at low wages; if they were finally “rolled over” to regular status, they would have to wait another eight years for top pay.
Temps will also be eligible for profit-sharing and the $5,000 ratification bonus for the first time.
RETIREMENT TIERS CONTINUE
To completely end tiers would require that second-tier workers, those hired since 2007, get pensions and retiree health care, as first-tier workers do. The Big 3 did not agree to either of these proposals, complaining of significant long-term liabilities.
Instead the companies will put 10 percent of each worker’s pay into a 401(k), a big increase from the current 6.4 percent, with no match required. The union also won the first increase to the pension multiplier (for workers hired before 2007) since 2003.
The union was able to eliminate the tiered vacation system at GM. Workers hired since 2007 will now be eligible for five weeks’ vacation after 20 years; previously they were capped at four. At Ford and Stellantis, the union won an agreement that the company can only force workers to use one week of vacation during shutdowns, giving workers more ability to schedule their vacations when they choose. But at Stellantis, workers will now be forced to use some of their vacation and personal time to cover FMLA leave.
NEW JOBS ADDED
The UAW and Stellantis reached a deal on October 28, three days after Ford.
One big issue was the status of the Belvidere Assembly plant in Illinois, which Stellantis had idled earlier this year, forcing 1,200 workers to disperse to other plants. The new agreement will bring jobs back to Belvidere, where the two shifts will produce a midsize truck.
Stellantis will also add 1,000 jobs at a new battery plant there. “Under our contract, members from Belvidere who have been scattered across this country will have the right to return back home,” said UAW Vice President Rich Boyer.
The union won the right to strike over any failures by the companies to live up to the investments and products they promised for various plants, as well as over plant closures. “That means if the company goes back on their word on any of these plans, we can strike the hell out of them,” said UAW President Shawn Fain.
One surprise bonus: the companies will pay each striker $110 a day for their time on the picket line, on top of the union’s $500 a week strike pay.
At Ford, the union had wanted a pledge that all electric vehicle plants, including joint ventures, would be brought under the master agreement that covers existing UAW members at the company. It extracted a pledge to recognize the union at two plants now under construction, the Tennessee Electric Vehicle Center and the Marshall Battery Plant in Michigan, if a majority of workers sign union cards (what union organizers call “card check”). This should be easy for the UAW.
Ford is planning three other battery plants in Tennessee and Kentucky, jointly owned with South Korea’s SK On and scheduled to start production in 2025. There, it appears the union will have to organize the old-fashioned way.
At GM and Stellantis, the gains on electric vehicles were greater. Both agreed to put workers at their joint venture battery plants under their master agreements. “They told us for years that the electric vehicle transition was a death sentence for good auto jobs in this country,” Fain said. “With this agreement, we’re proving them all wrong.”
To get these workers under the master agreement, the UAW agreed that new hires at battery plants will make 75 percent of the top rate for workers at assembly plants (though workers who transfer there will keep their top pay). That’s still a big step up: production workers at GM’s Ultium joint venture in Lordstown, Ohio, will see immediate $6 to $8 increases, on top of the $3 to $4 the union won earlier this year. Starting wages stood at $16 earlier this year; they’ll now be $27.
Ultium workers voted 97 percent in favor of the new contract.
The automakers were likely counting on these deals to sail through, but members at many assembly plants had other thoughts.
At Ford and Stellantis, 68 percent of workers voted in favor of the deal, according to the UAW’s vote tracker, with a few plants yet to count. But workers at the largest Ford plant, Kentucky Truck, voted the deal down by 55 percent. Kentucky Truck was the last Ford plant to be called out on strike. At the first, Michigan Assembly near Detroit, the local voted 82 percent yes.
“In our plant, it’s a little torn,” said Julian Thomas, who has worked assembly and repair for 10 years at Toledo Jeep, a major Stellantis plant, in advance of the vote there on November 15. “A lot of full-timers are leaning no. A lot of temps are leaning yes. Even on my line, some people just want to get back to make money, and other people say, ‘This isn’t everything we could get.’” The Jeep plant was on strike for six weeks.
“It’s been an every-day debate on the lines,” said Thomas, with some members bringing printouts of Stellantis profits to argue the company could afford a better deal on wages and retirement.
Toledo Jeep workers ultimately voted 55 percent against the deal. But the contract passed at all five other Stellantis U.S. assembly plants, with yes votes ranging from 61 to 85 percent.
At GM, the vote was much closer: only 54.6 percent of members voted in favor. Two-thirds voted no at the Spring Hill, Tennessee, assembly plant. Workers also voted no at most of GM’s other assembly plants, including the plant in Wentzville, Missouri, which was the first to strike. But the contract got support from 60 percent of workers at GM’s largest plant, in Arlington, Texas, which had been on strike just a few days, as well as heavy support from parts depots and components and battery plants.
“At GM, a lot more people are still angry about what happened in 2019 when we went on strike for six weeks and we basically didn’t get anything,” said Jaron Garza, a skilled trades worker at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan.
Scott Houldieson, who’s worked as an electrician at Ford Chicago Assembly for 34 years, supported the agreement. (He is chair of the caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy, UAWD, which opted for a neutral stance.) “It was a strike that was trying to dig us out of 40 years of concessions, 40 years of cooperating with the companies, 40 years of corruption,” Houldieson said.
“We didn’t get it all. But nobody should expect to get it all in one set of contract negotiations. We won record wage increases, we got back COLA [cost-of-living adjustment]. Ending wage tiers is huge. We got our foot in the door with the transition to electric vehicles.”
MAY DAY 2028
The new contracts will expire April 30, 2028. That’s four and a half years, a little longer than the previous four-year agreements.
Fain said the UAW wants to give time for other unions to align their contract expirations with the UAW and strike together on May 1, 2028—International Workers’ Day. “If we’re going to truly take on the billionaire class and rebuild the economy so that it starts to work for the benefit of the many and not the few,” Fain said, “then it’s important that we not only strike, but that we strike together.”
The other reason for the longer contract, Fain said, is the union’s plan to organize the many nonunion automakers: Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW, Honda, Nissan, and others.
Within days of the new agreements, non-union automakers were calling emergency meetings and scrambling to hike wages. Toyota raised pay by 9.2 percent and cut its progression from six years to three; Honda announced an 11 percent increase; and Hyundai boosted wages by 6.5 percent, on top of a 3.5 percent increase in March.
Meanwhile, the UAW says that literally thousands of workers at non-union plants have reached out or signed cards online to join the union. “It’s not a hot shop, it’s a molten shop,” said one insider.
BROKE WITH TRADITION
Fain was elected this year in the UAW’s first-ever one-member, one-vote election, after a corruption scandal landed two recent presidents in jail. His victory ended eight decades of one-party rule.
Fain’s slate was organized by the UAWD caucus, which had formed in 2019 to agitate for the right to vote. The slate ran on a winning platform of “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers.” When Fain narrowly beat incumbent Ray Curry, he took office less than six months before Big 3 contracts expired.
As president, Fain finally took the union back on the offensive, with the enthusiastic backing of UAWD members. “For decades, we’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind our back,” he said in announcing the Stellantis agreement. “And to tell you the truth, sometimes it felt like both hands.”
Fain broadcast weekly bargaining updates via Facebook Live, breaking with the UAW practice of sharing no information before a tentative agreement was reached. The transparency and boldness won members over—Fain’s videos regularly had 40,000 to 50,000 live viewers on Facebook and more on other platforms.
And he never hesitated to raise members’ expectations, laying out demands for a 40 percent wage increase, a 32-hour week, and restoration of pensions and retiree health care.
Coming off the strike, the UAW is in a much different place from six months ago: on the offensive, framing its battles as fights for the entire working class, and using power as it hasn’t done in many years.
Luis Feliz Leon, Jane Slaughter, Keith Brower Brown, and Lisa Xu contributed to Labor Notes reporting on the UAW strike.
Fain on Pensions
UAW President Shawn Fain acknowledged to members via Facebook Live November 8 that they hadn’t won it all.
While “what we did win in this contract will change many lives,” Fain said, “we went into this round of negotiations to end tiers. One of the biggest and worst tiers in our union is the difference between pre-2007 and post-2007 hires, which determines who gets a pension and retiree health care and who doesn’t.
“We didn’t win on this issue. The fact is, both of these issues are extremely difficult and expensive to fix, primarily because the Big 3, being so driven by Wall Street, refused to have the liability on their books…
“So already we’re looking at 2028 for this issue and we’re thinking even bigger. Either the Big 3 guarantees retirement security for workers who give their lives to these companies, or an even bigger player does, the federal government.”
He also pointed out how much more strength in numbers the UAW had when it first won pensions from GM in 1950: “Almost every auto worker in this country was a member of our union, and still they struck for over 100 days to secure that victory.”
Winning back pensions, he said, will require “getting back to our full strength,” including “building our strike muscle to go even further in 2028” and organizing the nonunion automakers.