The latest from the UAW strike: NPR

The UAW continues its strike at three Midwest auto plants with marches, picket lines and a lot of uncertainty.

Scott Simon, host:

The United Auto Workers test their mettle by striking. This union was gigantic. Today it’s a good deal smaller. The privileges of union membership became fewer. But at a rally last night in Detroit, union president Sean Fine said it was time for change.

(Audio of archived recording)

Sean Fein: They’re afraid because they see their system – where billionaires hold everything – collapsing, and we’re not afraid.

SIMON: NPR’s Camilla Domonowski joins us now from Detroit. Thank you for being with us.

CAMILA DOMONOSKY, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Scott.

SIMON: What was it like? What I saw?

Domonowski: Yes. I mean, I talked to executives at the Detroit auto show. I went out and spoke to people on the sit-in lines in complete darkness. There is one photo from this week that I think I will never forget. There were two events right next to each other in downtown Detroit last night. One was a large UAW rally. In Bernie Sanders’ speech, he focused heavily on the wide and growing gap between the haves and have-nots in America. And then literally next door, Scott, there was an extravagant charity event at the car show – $400 a ticket a person, people in floor-length gowns with drinks, milling around the cars, and right outside, red-haired people in the streets with picket signs, They are separated by some glass and some mounted police officers.

SIMON: The UAW last went on strike in 2019. What do you see as different this time?

Domonowski: There are a lot of different things. Union leadership is different. They are unusually transparent. They have updates on conversations back and forth. It is unusual to hit all three companies simultaneously. The Federation has never done that and it is also unusual that we start with a small number of plants and then threaten to grow over time, and this is how they do these strikes. It’s all different. More importantly, the union is asking for much more in these talks, through these strikes, than it has asked for in any recent negotiations.

SIMON: Like what?

DOMONOSKY: Well, obviously more wages, but also pensions, cost-of-living adjustments, retiree health care, wages for workers in closed factories. And these are the things that the union gave up, the things that the union owned, but gave back to the company during the Great Recession, the things that the car companies say are too expensive to bring back. Brendan Bell was on the picket line this week. He had only worked at Ford for three years, so he wasn’t around during the Great Recession. But all these workers know this history.

Brendan Bell: They gave up wages. They gave up their retirement money. They gave a lot to the company because the company was in a bad situation. They were facing bankruptcy.

DOMONOSKI: And those things that they’ve given up on, they can still see around them. Justin Lowe works at the same factory.

Justin Lowe: I come from a long family that lives in the UAW, and they have pensions and things like that, and it kind of sucks, well, because you come later, you don’t get it. So I would really like to see the pension come back.

Domonowski: I’ve heard a variation of that from a lot of people.

SIMON: What made them decide this was the right time to make the big push?

Domonowski: Yes. Well, there’s the new leadership. There are also the huge profits made by companies. Automakers have done a great job in the past few years, so there is money on the table. Inflation made workers willing to push for more. You know, they’re not happy about offering a 10, 15, or even 20 percent increase. It’s not as good as it seemed, you know, four years ago. There’s also a lot of support for unions right now from the public and from the Biden administration. Other unions have achieved some significant gains, which is a kind of motivation or inspiration for the unions. So overall, the UAW sees this as an opportunity, perhaps a unique one, to secure some gains for the future.

SIMON: What could the future be?

Domonowski: Well, it’s unpredictable. There is real frustration on both sides. I should mention that the car companies are frustrated with the union. They say they are unreasonable, and do not respond to their offers. President Biden says he will send two key members of his administration to help with negotiations. There is a risk of additional factories closing at any time. We don’t know where. We don’t know when. The union’s strategy here is to be unexpected.

SIMON: NPR’s Camilla Domonowski in Detroit. Thank you very much for being with us.

Domonowski: Thank you.


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