Autoworkers Are Fighting for the Future of the Industry

Stagnant pay and hazardous conditions have driven autoworkers at the Big Three to organize.

Maximillian Alvarez

United Auto Workers members march in the Detroit Labor Day Parade on September 4, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

After the high-stakes contract fight between the Teamsters and UPS, the eyes of labor are now on the contract negotiations currently taking place between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler). The UAW’s master agreement with the Big Three covers around 150,000 autoworkers, and the current contract expires on September 14. If a tentative agreement is not reached by then, the auto industry could be the next to be rocked by a major strike, and UAW president Shawn Fain has stated clearly that the union is prepared to strike at all three automakers if necessary. What brought us to this point, and what’s at stake in this contract fight (for autoworkers, for the UAW, and for the labor movement writ large)? What are workers demanding, and what role do we all have to play in ensuring they get the contract they deserve? In this panel discussion, we talk with three rank-and-file workers and UAW members from each of the Big Three automakers: Marcelina Pedraza, a Ford electrician in Chicago and member of UAW Local 551; Torice Sawyer, a Stellantis plant worker at the Detroit Assembly Complex – Jefferson and member of UAW Local 7; Nicholas Livick, a General Motors autoworker and rank-and-file member of UAW Local 31 in Kansas City

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Marcelina Pedraza: Hi, everyone. I’m Marcelina Pedraza, but most people call me Marcy. I’ve been a union electrician for 24 years now, from the southeast side of Chicago, born and raised. I live and work here still, and I’m passionate about workers’ rights and environmental justice. I’m a member of United Auto Workers Local 551, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and I’m a mom and a dog owner.

Torice Sawyer: My name is Torice Sawyer. I am from UAW Local 7 Jefferson North, also known as Detroit Assembly Complex Jefferson. I’ve been there since 96. I started off as a TPT, I got hired in full-time, 1998. I am part of the rank and file. I work in 9194 in final assembly, which where we call Rolls and Merrills. We check the headlights and actually drive the vehicle to make sure that it’s inspected.

Nicholas Livick: Nicholas Livick, member of UAW Local 31 in Kansas City. In three days, I would’ve been with General Motors for a decade. Where does the time go? I’m passionate about just anything labor related. I’m excited to be here. Thank you for setting up this panel, Max.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Welcome, everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. If you’re hungry for more worker and labor-focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. Please, please support the work that we are doing here at Working People so we can keep growing and keep bringing y’all more important conversations every week. You can support us by leaving us a positive review of the show on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. You can share these episodes on your social media, and you can share them with your coworkers, your friends, and your family members. Of course, the single best thing you can do to support our work is become a paid monthly subscriber on Patreon for just five bucks a month.

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My name is Maximilian Alvarez, and I am very excited and grateful to be joined on this special Working People recording. You guys heard, we’ve got my man Nick Livick, we’ve got Marcy, we’ve got Torice. We’ve got an incredible panel of UAW members who are, as you may have heard, in the midst of a critical contract fight with the Big Three automakers. We are recording this panel on Wednesday, September 6th. We’re going to try to turn it around as quickly as we can because things are heating up right now. The current UAW Master Agreement with the Big Three automakers expires on September 14th. Just earlier today, UAW President Shawn Fain said in very clear terms that if any of the Big Three automakers does not have a contract offer on the table by then, they will see their workers strike. So we’re really coming down to the showdown here. This is a pivotal contract campaign involving a whole lot of workers in a critical industry.

So we wanted to bring Nick, Marcy, and Torice on to give y’all an up-to-date view of what things are looking like from their vantage points, what they are fighting for along with their co-workers in this contract fight, and why it’s so important that all of us rally around them and support them until they get the contract that they deserve. So I’m going to turn it over to our incredible panel in just a second, but as we always do, we want to make sure that our listeners have at least some baseline context to understand the rest of the conversation that we’re going to have today. So I just wanted to read a couple passages from a great breakdown that was published last month at Labor Notes by the great Dan DiMaggio and Keith Brower Brown. Of course, we’re going to link to this in the show notes along with other helpful links for y’all so you can keep reading up on this contract fight and the major changes that have happened within the UAW in recent years, which we’re also going to talk about today.

But just to give y’all some of that baseline context, Dan DiMaggio and Keith Brower Brown write in Labor Notes, quote, The clock is ticking towards September 14th at midnight when the autoworkers’ contracts with the Big Three automakers expire. The new leaders of the UAW have come out swinging and in quickly growing numbers, members are stepping up to prepare for a strike. The agreements cover close to 150,000 workers at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.” In early August, President Shawn Fain presented a list of the members’ demands to the companies, calling them, quote, the most audacious and ambitious list of proposals they’ve seen in decades,” end quote. These bargaining goals are aimed at undoing concessions extracted by the companies from previous Union administrations since before the Great Recession. A major goal is to ensure that the transition to electric vehicles is not used to further undermine autoworkers’ standards.

Entering this round of bargaining, the Big Three have reported a combined $21 billion in profits in the first half of 2023. This comes on top of profits of 250 billion over the last 10 years. Our message going into bargaining is clear, record profits mean record contracts,” Fain told UAW members on Facebook live August 1st. Instead of the UAW’s past tradition of targeting just one auto company and bargaining then basing contracts for the others off that model, Fain warned all three companies to consider themselves targets, keeping them guessing about which one may ultimately be struck or whether union members might walk out at all three. In 2019, 49,000 UAW members struck GM for six weeks.

Among the demands Fain presented are eliminating tiers on wages and benefits, plus double-digit raises for all, restoring cost of living adjustments, which were suspended during the Great Recession. Restoring the defined benefit pension in retiree healthcare for all, workers hired since 2007 have neither. Increasing pensions for current retirees, there’s been no increase since 2003. The right to strike over plant closures, a quote, working family protection program, which means if the company shut down a plant, they would have to pay laid off workers to do community service work, making all current temps permanent employees with strict limits on the future use of temps and increasing paid time off,” end quote.

All right. So that’s just the opening salvo here. Let’s dig in deep to the rest of this historic contract fight with our incredible panelists. Marcy, I want to start with you and ask if we could go around the table as we love to do on this show, we want to get to know more about our fellow workers like how you came to do this work. What was the path that led you to doing the kind of job that you do now? What does that job look like? Cause most of us will have literally no idea what you three do on a day-to-day basis, and we’re hungry to learn about it. So yeah, tell us a little more about your own path into the auto industry, the kind of work that you do, and the kind of issues that you have seen and experienced firsthand that are really at issue here in this contract fight.

Marcelina Pedraza: Yeah, so thanks for having me again. So as I said, I’m an electrician. I started in construction, but as we know, that can be an on and off again type job where you have to go look for work and sometimes you’re not working for weeks at a time, and you might lose your benefits. So actually, it was back in 2013 or 2012 when Chrysler, at the time Chrysler called me, they found my resume online. They said, Hey, we need more tradespeople.” I was like, Where is this plant?” They said, Belvedere.” I was like, I don’t know where that is.” They said, It’s right near Chicago.” I’m like, That’s nowhere near Chicago. It’s near Rockford.” So anyway, I moved my family in 2013 to move to Belvedere to work at Chrysler Belvedere Assembly Plant, which has now been idled, and it was just for something more steady.

I took a pay cut at first cause coming from the outside to the inside, it was a big pay cut, but steady work, great benefits, all that stuff. I was there three-and-a-half years. Then even though I was always back and forth home, coming home to Chicago where I’m from, so then I saw that Ford was hiring, and now I work at Ford Chicago Assembly Plant here on the southeast side, which is right near 10 minutes from where I live. I’ve been fortunate to be there seven years, but I’ve done all kinds of things from babysitting robots, troubleshooting, working on panels, VFDs, there’s a lot. Now I do more preventive maintenance work in the paint department, so making sure all the trades have their work tickets and creating work orders based on what kind of maintenance needs to be done in our department.

So it’s been a lot of learning experience, especially coming from the outside doing pipe and wire. I come to this industry and they’re like, Oh, what do you know about PLCs?” I’m like, Well, I had a class, an apprenticeship program, but I never used it on the outside,” but I’ve learned a lot and had robotics training. Yeah, so it’s just been a great experience learning new things. But it’s also, it’s a time where we’re realizing that I’ve been in the UAW 10 years now and this past contract, we’ve only received a 3% raise every two years, so that’s 6% over the last four years. That doesn’t even catch up or it doesn’t even compare to inflation, which has been more than three times that. So when they say, Oh look, you’re getting this raise or this lump sum bonus,” the bonuses just come and go. That’s why we’re fighting for cost of living allowance, cause that’s permanent.

Torice Sawyer: Well, me as myself, me being at Jefferson North Assembly Plant, I work in final. I’ve worked in all the departments in assembly, trimmed chassis, final, little bit in body shop when I was a TPT. When I began working there in 96, I actually left another facility that used to build parts for Chrysler and that was the Sebring. I got a phone call from my girlfriend, like, Hey, my aunt work at an unemployment agency. She told us come down and fill out the app.” I’m like, Bet.” So we rushed down there, we filled out the app, and it’s been almost 27 years counting the TPT time that I’ve been at Jefferson North Assembly Plant. Back then, we was at minimum wage, and that was minimum, literally, I want to say 7, $8.00 an hour. So when I came to Chrysler, that was such a blessing for me because I had already had purchased a house at the age of 21. So that was like, oh, my God, I was at 12, we started at 12.54, and now the kids starting at 17, $18.

When I tell them when I started at $12.54, they like, Here? You was making only $12.54 working here?” They really thrown back with that. I was like, Chrysler was everything back in 96.” Just to try to get back in the Big Three, cause it was so hard to get it in GM Ford or Chrysler, I remember filling out the app, I put all of it, part-time, full-time, any time, just let me get my foot in the door. So I was very happy to come and work at Chrysler because like I said, back then it just meant everything, and you was not getting that type of pay. I was just almost three, four years out of school, out of high school, and I didn’t immediately go to school, to college. I did have some experience with community college at the time, but with that rate, it was really unheard of. So I felt like working at the Big Three was like a blessing to me and my family. I have three boys that have come up in the ranks, not at Chrysler, but off our likelihood.

Nicholas Livick: It’s powerful listening to everyone’s stories. Mine actually starts in the 60s, my grandfather hired into AMC Kenosha. When that closed down, he got hired into Janesville, Wisconsin. Sorry, I’m battling a little bit of a cold, the kids got me. My mom got hired in, I think she’s a 96er too. Then the recession hit and we were forced to move. Our plant closed, so we packed everything up, and my mom waited until she got her final offer and Kansas City was it. So I was like, Sure. I’m ready for an adventure. It’s my senior year of high school.” So we moved down here, and then I went back to Wisconsin, went to college. I put my name in there. Like they said, it was impossible to get in. It’s a lottery system, at least it was for me. You’re just waiting to see if your name gets pulled. I finally got called. I was a semester away from my associate’s degree, and I remember sitting at my table just doing the math.

I was like, Man, I could continue. I could get this degree. I could graduate. I could have all this student debt, or I can go and follow in the footsteps of my family,” and hopefully, I was looking at the past experiences. It was good enough for my grandfather to move his family out of a double wide into a home. It was good enough for my mom to actually buy her first new car ever after she got hired in. These jobs used to be life-changing jobs. It set the standard for not just manufacturing, but all of them, the working class in America. So I got hired in, and I just bounced around. I’ve done just about everything. I’m in general assembly, so we do all the inside of the vehicle. I’ve done material. I’ve been back in body shop. I’ve been a team leader.

Right now, I’m in the pool so I can go to any job in my group, and I’m just pretty much expected to be able to walk on to that job or do that job with minimal training. I could even be removed from my group and sent to another group because I’m a pool guy. So I could go to group one, and it’s the same kind of conditions, you’re trying to free up a team leader or somebody else, get them off the line so they can watch your brothers and sisters or the people in their area. So you’re expected to be able to walk on to this job that would take some people four hours, a day, three days, and you’re just expected to walk on and do it. So I could be doing anything on any given day, and I like it that way. I like to bounce around. Some people don’t like it, but I’ve found through my 10 years as when you get to one job, people don’t realize you’re stuck in the same 10 feet area for hours.

Nicholas Livick: Same 10 feet area for hours and hours. I mean, your life kind of turns into a Dr. Seuss book, one car, two car, red car, blue car. So I love to bounce around. So that’s just a little bit about me.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I want to actually pick up on that real quick and do a sort of mini round around the table. Because you all are doing such different jobs or you could do a different job depending on what day of the week it is. Right? And so I just wanted to give listeners a sense of what a typical week looks like if there is such a thing for you. Because again, we’re talking about the auto industry. We know in general that it’s hard work, but I still think a lot of people don’t know what that entails. So just to give folks more of a sense of the real day-to-day grind that we’re talking about here, could we go back around the table and just tell me what a typical week looks like for you? How long are you working? What’s your commute like? What does it look like in there? Just give folks more of a sense of what you go through on a week-to-week basis.

Marcelina Pedraza: Okay. I’ll start. And I wanted to add some other stuff from before that I didn’t say. So you can put this in later if you want. Also, I wanted to mention that I’m a fourth generation union worker. My family, I come from a long line of steel mill workers and railroad workers that worked in the southeast side before the steel mills closed. And basically, just let their community in despair. But a typical week, let’s see, for trades, basically trades, we keep the line running. And production knows when the line stops, management all of a sudden, right away they’re calling for maintenance to come out, whether electricians usually first. And it’s something that we can’t correct, then we might need a millwright or a pipe fitter depending on the problem. And at my plant, trades work 12-hour shifts and it’s usually three or four days a week or five or two days a week. And it’s weird, the weekend. And it’s every other weekend, day or night.

So it could be a long day or a long night. And it could be, you could do anything from just making your rounds, making sure everything’s running correctly, servicing equipment. And during the little breaks, or lunch, or shift change, changing parts, making sure that everything’s ready for the next shift. Or sometimes when something breaks down, they’re on us. All the bosses come from everywhere in the planet it seems, and they’re hovering over you, bird dogging us. Why isn’t it running? Why isn’t it running? Seconds is money, and it’s just like every second that the line is down, it’s freaking out. So we could be running around trying to reset a panel, or a robot, or trying to get the ovens back up and running in the paint shop. And some of these conditions are really hot. Most of the plants don’t have air conditioning. I don’t know. Some areas do, but it’s mainly to protect the equipment like in a paint shop. So we could be running to the roof to check the RTOs or working right near an oven, which just because it’s turned off, it’s still really hot around those ovens.

I remember working one breakdown, pretty much every electrician in that department working on this communication issue. And we were there for hours, and they had to bring us water and we were just melting. And over time we were done. We had to change our coveralls. Everyone was just soaking wet. But not every day is like that. It just depends on what’s going on. A lot of these plants run, I know our plant runs 24/7. And there’s hardly any time to do the basic maintenance that we need to do to keep the plant running in an efficient manner. They just want to make cars and produce. And a lot of times they don’t care about the conditions of the equipment. They’re like, Oh, let’s work a super Saturday, super Sunday.” It’s like, all right, well, where’s our 24-hour time that we have to go in and fix the problems so that you don’t have these breakdowns throughout the week or the next shift even. But they don’t really look into that, I guess.

United Automobile Workers members and their supporters gather for Solidarity Sunday at the UAW Region 1 office in Warren, Michigan, on August 20, 2023. JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Torice Sawyer: Well, for me, I’m over in 91, 94, which we call Rolls and Merrills. And I am working, they actually have our plant at critical status, meaning we’re supposed to be actually working Sundays too as production. We only work one production Sunday, thank God, because we’ve still been on 6 days, 10 hours. In my department, we also do reprocessing, meaning the unavailable vehicles that have defects, we actually come in and we have to process those cars through Rolls and Merrills. So if they’re not working on a Sunday, we are canvassed to work overtime on a Sunday in our area. So last month, I believe, yeah, the last two months I could say I had almost worked, and I was counting, about 23 days straight. And I was like, when they come around and ask for overtime or ask could I come in on a Sunday or Saturday if it was an off Saturday. I’m like, I got to turn it down. Because I know at this point my body is going to break down.

I’m just barely just getting over a cold myself, and I know my immune system will just automatically break down. So we are literally, we are working non-stop as well. And we felt like that because they felt like we may strike, they was kind of stockpiling the cars as well. Just trying to build whatever they could build and we’ll get it on the back end. We’ll repair those cars on the back end. So at the same time, you want the money because you don’t know if you’re going to go on strike and you want to try to put money aside. And then I still have a 13-year-old that’s in school, my last Mohican I call him, that I had to school shop for, and things of that nature.

And just going to the grocery store and spending $250 at Costco’s like nothing. And then, I still have to go to Myers and buy some of the stuff that they didn’t have at Costco’s. So I’m spending a good $400 at least on groceries. So I’m appreciating the overtime, but at the same time, I’m getting burnt out. We are really getting burnt out. And I try not to complain, and I thank God for the job, for the opportunity, but at the same time, we are getting burnt out.

Nicholas Livick: And the nature of my job is I never know what’s going to go on. But when I was a team leader, to kind of tag on what Marcy said, when that line goes down, and it’s a high stress situation. Because the moment your line goes down, the moment a job and your team goes down, management’s right there on the radio and they’re like, What’s going on at 154? What’s going on at 210? What is it?” And it’s like, I mean, it’s only been like five seconds guys, let me at least get up out of my chair and walk over there.

So you got to just imagine that there’s a never ending stream of work as far as your eye can see, and you’re just sitting there in the same 15-foot footprint, and you’re walking back and forth. And this isn’t like a slow walk. This is, you got to keep up or that line is going down. And if that line goes down, and if it goes down too many times, management’s going to be standing there, bird dogging you watching. So you’re standing there, you’re walking back and forth, you’re probably going to walk 10 to 15 miles a night just in that same 15-foot footprint. You’re going to be adding parts to the car. The jobs at my plant run at about 58 seconds. So every 58 seconds you got a new job, but you can’t even really look at it at the tack time or the job time. It’s more of the load time.

So at our plant, a lot of our jobs are 98% plus loaded. So these are busy jobs. And even the jobs that are less loaded, well, it’s because the management came through with their little stopwatch because they’ll do this every year and they’ll time the job. But they shave off half seconds, quarter seconds, and they make the job work on paper and then they stand back and scratch their head wondering why the line keeps on going down. Well, because last year it took me two seconds to do this push pin, and now it only takes me one second to do the push pin. So you do the math. And it’s hard work. There’s a lot of facilities. I’m actually kind of fortunate. My facility is climate-controlled. So during the heat of the summer, it could be 110 outside, and we’re lucky. And the plant’s staying at about 90 degrees, but that’s still hot for physical labor.

You go over to 249, the Ford plant, and they’re not climate-controlled. They’re out there, if it’s 110 outside, it’s 120 in the factory. And they’re getting heat relief breaks. They’re getting, literally, people are wheeling water up and down the aisles just to give people water breaks. I mean, it’s insane that we are in 2023, and we can’t even have basic conditions inside of the factories. And then you think about the dock workers, they’re driving into these semi-trucks that are really nothing more than convection ovens when it’s this hot outside. And then you go in the winter time and then it’s freezing cold. So there’s a lot of things. In my 10 years, before I turned 27, I’m 31 now. Before I turned 27, I had trigger finger, carpal tunnel in both my wrists, frozen shoulder, blown out my back because I was on a job where I was literally bending over 90 degrees.

So you do that for 420 times a night, do that, times that by five or six. And that’s how many cars you’re doing in a week. And my plant’s one of the lucky ones. We do nine-hour shifts. We are only slated to do eight, but we’ve been doing an hour of mandatory overtime. We’ve been scheduled a lot of Saturdays. Right now, the supply chain’s so wonky that they’ve been canceling them, they’ll schedule it. And this is another great thing that management does. They’ll schedule a Saturday and then before the weekend comes, they’re like, Oh, we don’t actually need you guys.” It’s Wednesday. And it’s like, Oh, thanks.” I could have gone out and enjoyed the time with my family, but instead, you know. So we can’t have vacations where we’re in there in sweltering conditions. The work has gotten, it’s essentially a speed up because the work has gotten so bad and so busy that even if something as simple as a wire comes tangled to you down the line, the line’s going down.

So it’s really dependent. Everybody needs to do their job a hundred percent every single time. And if you miss something, the next job’s going to go down. And then, that person’s in the hole. So then that person’s trying to catch up. And while that person’s catching up, well, guess what happened to the person down the line from them? Well, they got in the hole. So I mean, it’s just a cascading effect. So that kind of gives you an idea of what it’s like to work the line. It’s hectic, it’s stressful. But you do get your good days where everything just seems to be working and you can just kinda listen to your music or audio books. That’s how I’m a big fan of audio books and just kind of zone out because you’ve been out the job for so long that it’s almost like your body’s busy, but your mind’s free.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man, I’ll tell you one thing, my body’s aching just listening to this. I got a shitty back and a bad knee, and they’re both hurting, listening to you guys talk. And speaking as a former warehouse worker in Southern California, I know what it’s like going into those trucks in the middle of summer. When you say it’s like a convection oven, you’re not kidding. You go out into the sun to cool off after coming out of one of those God damn trucks. And even just hearing this, I mean, I think folks can start to put together why you all just as workers in the auto industry who have such high demands put on you. And your bodies, and your brains, and your coworkers, and the different departments. And the speedups that affect your lives in the ways that you all enumerated. I mean, even just thinking about that, the working conditions and what it does to you as human beings trying to meet those quotas in such a high pressure, and kind of high stakes environment.

Because we’re talking industrial manufacturing. This is dangerous work too. You got to know what you’re doing, keep your wits about you, all that good stuff. So even just from that side, the daily work side, I can see why you all are fighting so hard to get a better contract that will make sure that you’re paid adequately for that. Better protect workers like yourselves who are in that situation. That already makes a ton of sense. But of course, we’re talking about, there’s a lot of other context here behind this contract fight. And I just wanted to kind of lay out sort of how I come to it as an outside observer, just trying to think about from my own advantage point, the changes that have happened to this industry. And I mean, geez, Torice, you can be talking about this going back to the late nineties. You’ve seen these firsthand. I mean, all of you have seen this firsthand, but I’m just speaking for myself.

I remember when the economy cratered in 2008. My family, like so many others, lost everything including the house that I grew up in. That’s where this show started years ago. But I remember those days. I remember the auto industry almost collapsing. I remember the American taxpayers bailing out two of the auto manufacturers to the tune of $80 billion. I remember workers like yourselves taking concessions, giving concessions at that moment, and all of us around the country. It was like, look, we’re in a crisis, we got to tighten our belts. We got to do what we can to keep this ship afloat. That was the mentality we were all in at that moment. And you guys and your coworkers showed up. You did what you had to do to keep the auto industry afloat. And you were explicitly promised by the Big Three automakers that you would get those concessions back when things turned around, when they were back in the black, when we weren’t on the lip of a volcano facing imminent collapse.

Fast forward a couple years, and like I said, I started this show and the first person I’ve interviewed for it was my dad, Jesus Alvarez. We talked about losing everything in the recession. I was learning more about what workers across the country were going through when I started the show back in 2018. And one of the first big story that I just got obsessed with was the GM layoffs in 2018. I talked to folks in Ohio, I talked to folks in Michigan where I was living at the time. I talked to folks in Oshawa in Canada. People who were telling me that the Monday after Thanksgiving break, people who came back and were told that GM was eliminating 14,000 jobs, including white and blue collar jobs, and they were profitable. This was when GM was back in the black. This was after GM got a massive tax cut from everybody else, every other corporation from these assholes in Washington, like the tax cuts in the JOBS Act.

So they get these windfall profits from these tax cuts there. You all made this industry profitable after the great recession. And how were you repaid? With more layoffs, with closures, or idling. They always love to idle plants because they don’t say they’re going to close them. They just say, Oh, we’re not using it right now.” But it effectively has the same effect. That’s what happened to Lordstown, the storied plant in Lordstown, Ohio. I mean, this is what’s been happening in plants all across the country. And right now, we’re talking about an auto industry that is not where it was in 2008. In fact, I’m looking at the great background that Marcy has on our Zoom, including the rallying cry for the whole UAW. Shawn Fain’s been saying it, record profits equal record contracts. So we’ve come a long way from 2008, and I’m just kind of, again, giving my own sort of trying to put the pieces together as I’ve seen it over these past 15 years.

I wanted to turn it back over to you guys and ask just what context do people need to understand what brought us to this point? Why is this contract fight so significant? And I mean, we haven’t even touched on the reform movement within the UAW. You guys took control of your union. You got rid of a one party administration that had ruled for 70 years. I mean, there’s so much that has happened in this time, and I’m sorry I’m talking so long. This is such an important fight that I’m hoping I’m communicating effectively for folks. But I want to turn it back over to you all and ask just like – how should we be framing this? What is the context that led us to the point where we could see a major auto industry strike within the next two weeks?

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Marcelina Pedraza: Well, you got me thinking about my story too. So let me take it back even further to the 70s and 80s when Chicago made the steel that built our city and the skyscrapers across the country. And when those mills closed in my neighborhood in the southeast side of Chicago, it was devastating for our community. At some point there was, I think, I don’t know, a hundred thousand or so workers in the mills, maybe more, and those companies just left. There’s a great documentary about when Wisconsin Steel closed called Exit Zero by Christine Walley, and my dad worked at Wisconsin Steel and he was laid off and then eventually they just locked the gates and kicked everybody out.

They took their pensions, they took their last couple paychecks. I mean, yeah, I’ve seen what it does to a community, and that’s what reminds me or makes me think about Belvedere. And if I were still working there, I don’t know if I would still be in the plant because there is a skeleton crew of trades in the plant taking things apart and shipping it somewhere. I don’t know where, but it would be devastating to the community of Belvedere. It’s a small town. They rely heavily on all those jobs. And so just in these last few years, workers are getting fed up and we’re tired. We’ve given so much and the companies just keep taking and taking.

And we worked in a global pandemic risking our health and safety for them to make profits off of our labor, and that’s why you’ve seen so many more strikes happening. I was just reading in the Washington Post about this is the most strikes this year since the beginning, since before the pandemic, because it started when… well, most of us went back to work after a couple months, whereas a lot of people, especially the salary workers at Ford, got to work remotely. It’s not an option for most workers and… jumping around a bit, but yeah, it started with the Kellogg strike, I think, and then Caterpillar, John Deere, SAG-AFTRA and just countless CTU, Chicago Teachers Union, huge organizers in the labor movement.

And it’s really making people come together because we shouldn’t just classify ourselves as lower, middle, upper class. I have a family member who thinks that they’re comfortable, they’re upper middle class. I’m like, Yeah, you still go to work every day, right? Your wife goes to work every day. You’re working for a paycheck. You’re not part of that 1% or 10%, even. We are all working people, we’re all working class,” but corporations and the billionaires want us to fight each other and say, Well, no, they don’t deserve this. And McDonald’s workers don’t deserve that, or Starbucks workers,” but they’re getting what they want. They’re getting us to fight each other when really we should be fighting them, because there’s more of us than them.

So I was going to add too about… well, issues with the trades, specifically. It seems like with production and trades wages, they’re pretty close. We make probably a couple bucks more an hour? So it’s almost like if sometimes you’re production, you want to get in the trades, you think, Oh, it’s going to be easy.” It’s not easy, but they’re easier. But it’s a lot of training and they might think it might not even be worth it just for a few bucks more. And right now we’re facing… there’s more trades retiring, the boomers, most of the trades, I think over 50%, are over the age of 45.

So we’re going to need a lot more people getting in the trades. But if these wages stay stagnant the way they have been, nobody’s going to want to do that. But when I started in 99, it was ideal for me because I went to University of Southern California for two years, couldn’t afford to finish because the school was so expensive, but as soon as I got in the apprenticeship, I was able to pay off my college loans, buy a house, stuff like that. So yeah, these companies are going to have to pay up and to be competitive if they want to have a strong and a good workforce.

Torice Sawyer: COVID. And it’s before then, but really when COVID happened, when the pandemic happened, people was literally fed up. That was a real kicker, because I just remember how they had Taco Bells open, McDonald’s, all these fast food places open, a pandemic, people dying, you know what I’m saying? Of COVID. And y’all felt like that was important to keep these places open. I literally felt like the only thing that should have been open maybe was the gas station, grocery stores, that was the essential worker.

They included Chrysler workers, GM for… they considered us essential workers. And they was also… I remember looking at CNN saying we supposed to been getting hazard pay, the people even at the restaurant should be getting hazard pay because they was basically taking the risk of going to work every day and catching COVID, you know what I’m saying? So I’m looking like, Where our hazard pay at?” Because I remember our life had changed. We got the temperature, we making sure we ain’t got a cold and all this crap. We got the plastic dividers that’s dividing us sitting at the table.

When that really happened, and they really expected us to come in, and I remember getting angry when people was coming, running late because you literally was trying to find a babysitter, someone to watch your kids, what you talking about, they tardy? They need to have a babysitter. People couldn’t even take their kids over people houses and the grandmother houses, the grandfather houses because they didn’t want to get them sick. So it was like that really opened people eyes. They didn’t want to work here, they didn’t want to work. Like, F this job,” you know what I’m saying? Literally. A lot of people didn’t even come back after that because they were so afraid of catching COVID.

But just everything just… they felt like they wasn’t getting enough money. Just everything just start coming in on people and they just felt like they was unappreciated. Of course, the wages is not enough. Ain’t wasn’t nothing enough, as far as I remember, that’s what they told us. Y’all is killing the unemployment, so y’all need to hurry up and go back to work.” And we literally was even maybe the two months, but that’s what really kicked up all the smoke, even with everything that’s going on, COVID to me really just had people just fed up just like, Oh, this is not enough.”

You seeing your coworkers die, we were… oh my God, just family members dying, you know what I’m saying? And we just was exhausted. During the pandemic, people literally didn’t come back. They didn’t come back to work and we wasn’t having enough people. The TPTs was literally used every day, supplemental workers, whatever they want to call them. I think of a supplement as a vitamin, but they called them supplemental workers. They literally worked every day because people didn’t come back to work. So I really felt like COVID was the kicker of people just being fed up and not being appreciated and really wanting more.

I really think COVID was a great reset for a lot of workers.

Marcelina Pedraza: Getting back to the pandemic, I just remembered that I was paying a small mortgage for childcare and a lot of working parents were doing the same. I’m a one-parent household and even with just one kid, I couldn’t leave my kid home alone and they were doing remote or online learning, so I had to pay someone to be at my house, someone that was willing to go into a house where they know that that person that lives there is going to a place every day with thousands of other people, so risking getting sick themselves, and like I said, it was like paying another mortgage payment or a car payment and the little stimulus checks we got here and there, that didn’t really make up for it. But that went on for like a year, I guess? I don’t even know.

Nicholas Livick: I really think COVID was a great reset for a lot of workers. When you get that time off and you’re at home and you’re rediscovering the people in your life, I mean, my plant was laid off for about eight months and I had just had my son. So for the first eight months of his life, I got to watch him grow. Every single day, he’s hitting a new milestone, and then a month down the road, you’re holding him and you’re like, Hold on. You used to just cover part of my chest and now your legs are dangling off. What the hell happened here?”

So I mean, I just think it was a really big reset. And another thing that people need to understand is, we’re not complaining. Every single person on this call, this is something that’s really deep within the Big Three. We might joke around and give each other shit like, Oh, Ford, oh Dodge,” and all this other stuff. But at the end of the day, we’re really loyal to our companies. We’re really proud to work there. I mean, you go back to the 30s and when people died, they’d literally get buried with their Ford badge. I mean, we’re really proud of the work that we do. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to save this industry for the generation coming after us.

When I started in 2012, the starting wage was $15.78. In 2023 at GM it is $16.67. And that’s what your conditions are for two years, which is when you’re a mandatory hire. But if you break time for 30 days, so if you go through pretty much any layoff, your time restarts, and then after you’re hired in, you have an eight-year grow in pay scale. So for 10 years of your life, you’re not at top pay. For 10 years of your life, you’re trying to figure out how are you going to make ends meet? How do you save for retirement when you can’t even afford rent?

If you look at what an average two bedroom apartment goes for in any area where the Big Three have operations, I’m pretty sure Kentucky, because I did the research for the Members United campaign, Kentucky is one of the only places where you can actually afford a two-bedroom apartment on that wage. It’s ridiculous. So we have a lot of systemic issues that we need to fix in this contract, and a lot of it was what we had already given up, and we did it for the companies.

We did it because of how proud we are of this industry. They came to us and they said, Look, we’re bankrupt,” and it wasn’t the UAW’s fault. This was poor management. I mean, they’re building SUVs when gas is going through the roof in 2008, and they’re watching all these other manufacturers build cars, and they’re like, Ah, well, let’s double down on the SUV strategy.” I mean, it was just ridiculous. It was gross mismanagement. But we still gave, and we gave because we wanted to protect the industry. Now, we are going back to these companies and we’re trying to save the industry. It’s not about us. It’s about everyone that’s coming up after us.

If my son or daughter decides to become a fourth generation UAW worker in one of these plants, right now, I would tell them to go anywhere else because it’s not worth it. I mean, the work, the toll it takes on your body, and then if you give 30 years to any of these companies, now they don’t want to give you a pension. Okay, well, I mean, I gave you 30 of my best years. That’s 30 years of missing family events. That’s 30 years of you damaging and destroying my bodies.

And then they also don’t want to give you retiree healthcare because they don’t want to fix you when they broke you. I mean, I can remember growing up, and now that I think about it after 10 years, and as a father, I can put some sense into it, but my dad would only play catch for 5, 10, 15 minutes. And you’re a kid and you’re like, Come on dad, let’s just keep on going,” and he’s just getting done from work. I finally understand it. These conditions, they need to change.

I mean, we can’t allow multi-billion dollar companies to run people ragged like this. I mean, there’s no reason. You have people working 90 days straight, 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. The longest I ever worked was 21 days in a row, and I was lucky. I consider myself lucky again at that time, because I was in material. But guess what? That’s still 21 days in a row you’re sitting, cranking your back looking backwards because you’re in a factory. The moment you’re not twisted backwards and you’re not watching where you’re going, the moment you take your eye off that aisle, you could kill somebody. It’s that serious.

These plants, I don’t even know how to explain it. This needs to change and it needs to change now, if we can’t win this, if we can’t win this, what’s going to happen to the rest of labor? And as we transition to EVs and they’re about to lose… it takes about 30% less of the workforce. So where’s that 30% going to go? Well, the Big Three want it to go into Mary Barra’s and Carlos Tavares’s pocketbook, but in the reality, it’s got to benefit the workers.

We’ve got to stop letting these corporations get away with highway robbery. For example, GM reinstated the dividend at their company. They’ve spent about $5 billion on it. Instead of reinstating the dividend, if they give every worker a raise, it would be about a $7 an hour raise for every single employee for the same amount that they’re given to the shareholders for literally… they don’t even hold a piece of paper, it’s just an electronic share that pops up on their app like Charles Schwab or whatever.

I mean, you push people that care and they truly give a shit about your company, and you push them beyond their breaking point, beyond the normal lengths of human endurance, and eventually, people are going to start to snap. And I think that’s what you’re seeing in this round of contract negotiations. I think that’s what you’re seeing with the reform movement. People just were fed up. They were sick of it. They didn’t want business as usual. They wanted somebody to win a transformational, historic contract.

Record profits make record contracts. It’s a great background, but I mean, it’s the God honest truth. How can we as workers and as a society sit there and talk about the workers’ demands and, Oh, these are unimaginable demands. We can’t possibly give these demands,” but we never question the CEOs when they’re spending all this money on stock buybacks, when they’re giving their CEOs outrageous salaries, when they’re spending money on the dividends?

I mean, if we really want to be competitive, well, let’s look at our CEO pay and compare it to Toyota. Toyota, $4 million. Mary Barra, $29 million. I mean, it’s not a worker problem. This is a corporate greed problem, and we got to fix it. We’ve got to get back to having responsible corporations, paying their workers decent wages with decent conditions with decent benefits, and getting back to the way unions and labor used to fight and it used to be, because we’ve seen what happens when labor grows complacent. We’ve seen what happens when labor doesn’t fight, and we just got to get back to our roots. And I think that’s what’s happening right now.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and you make… all of you, I mean, really important points here. And that last one really sticks with me because I’ve been very open about this on the show and elsewhere that I grew up very conservative in Southern California. Not a very… in Orange County, no less. That was not a very union-friendly place. Marcy could tell you. It’s kind of dicey, especially if we’re talking about the 90s and the early aughts.

And the narrative that I always heard as a young conservative with no real connections to organized labor… I had some. On the Mexican side of the family, there were some union workers, but they didn’t talk about it that much, at least not with us. But the whole narrative I was always told growing up, it was based on your industry. It was based on examples like Flint and Lordstown and Chrysler in 1980. And what that narrative was, was unions and union workers got too greedy. They asked for too much, and the poor American auto companies had no choice but to close up shop, drop economic nukes on entire communities, close plants, take those jobs abroad, pay workers in other countries far less, deal with far fewer labor laws and environmental regulations because that’s what they had to do to stay profitable, and businesses need to be profitable, right? This was the common wisdom that I grew up with. Well, first off, we got a lot of problems with that narrative, but I think the point that y’all made is so important where it’s like, why the F are we not applying the same standard to the executives and the shareholders? If they are paying themselves billions of dollars, if they are more profitable than they’ve ever been off your backs, is anyone going to stop and say, Hey, these vultures at the top are literally siphoning all of the wealth out of our communities.”

They’re not hurting. It’s not the union’s fault, it’s not a worker problem, it’s a corporate greed problem, as Nick said. When are we going to make that turn as a culture? When are we going to apply the same conviction with which we have talked about the decline of the auto industry as a cipher for the problem with unions in this country in general and workers demanding too much? When are we going to apply that kind of standard or criticism to corporate America while they are making billions and billions of dollars? That’s what I want to know, just as an American at this point. I could talk to you guys for hours but I know you’ve got busy lives, you’ve got busy jobs, you’re in the midst of this contract fight, and I promised you I wouldn’t keep you longer than an hour, so if I can just a few more minutes, I want to end on that note of, what happens now? Let’s bring the focus back to the contract.

We haven’t even talked about much the reform movement that led to y’all ousting the previous administration, voting in through the reform, Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus really rallying behind a new administration, winning all the seats that you contested. Before that, passing a referendum that meant that UAW members would vote more democratically for their union leadership, a one member, one vote system as opposed to the previous delegate system, which enabled the previous administration to stay in place for so many years. This is very similar to what we saw play out with the Teamsters. We all know the history of the corruption, the mob, Hoffa. There’s a lot of dark stuff in the Teamsters past, even as it is a storied and important union that has done so much good for working people in this country, but of course it’s got a lot of bad skeletons in the closet as well.

And so, after that all came to a head in the 80s and 90s, the Teamsters were forced to have democratic elections within their union, and that is what laid the groundwork decades later for that union to elect Sean O’Brien and their reform slate, and then Sean O’Brien and that new administration coming in rallying UPS Teamsters and saying, We are turning the tide. No more concessionary bargaining, no more of this working us to death crap. We are coming back to get what is ours,” and we just saw them win a historic contract. There’s always more fighting to do, as we know. There’s always more that we need to get back. The contract is not perfect, but it’s a shit ton better than what Teamster UPSers have been getting for many, many years. Y’all are in a similar situation. We know that the UAW leadership has been rife with corruption. The FBI just did a multi-year investigation that landed multiple leaders, including two former UAW presidents, in prison.

That’s bad, but what I want people listening to understand is, that doesn’t just mean you give up on the union and you say, you know what? I’m just going to trust my employer to treat me nicely. I’m going to put all my hope in my boss because my union leaders are corrupt. No, you take hold of that union. You fight with your coworkers to make it better and to better represent you. That is what UAW members did. That’s an incredible feat. They got one member, one vote, and then they used that new voting system to vote in this reform slate with Shawn Fain as UAW president. Now he, with the members who are rallying behind him in this contract fight are ready to go to the mat and say, We’re not taking more of these concessions. We’re not sitting idly by while y’all rake in record profits and pay out shareholder dividends and all that crap. We are coming back for what’s ours.”

I wanted to just smush that in because of the reform movement discussion, we could do a whole other podcast on that, but I want to make sure that folks understood. It’s been mentioned by our great panelists, I just wanted to give y’all some of that context before we hit this final question, kind of a rapid fire round around the table, then I promise I’ll let everyone go. I just wanted to ask if we could go back around and highlight any key issues that you want listeners to focus on, like what is this fight really about? What are the issues that y’all are prepared to go on strike over? And most importantly, what can we all do? Within the labor movement and beyond, what can working people do to stand in solidarity with y’all if a strike happens or not?

Marcelina Pedraza: That’s a lot to unwrap there. Let’s see. First of all, I’m just so glad of the transparency from our newly elected leadership. I think they’re doing a great job at getting the rank and file fired up. We mean business now. Right before this, we had our practice picket at our union hall. We have another one coming up this Friday, so I would urge people to support us. If you see us on the picket line, support us if you can, give us a honk. Donate to our strike pantry, pass out some gas cards, whatever you can to support. Workers just need to support each other. We’re all fighting for decent living wages and conditions. Coming in after 2013, I’m not considered a legacy employee, but because I’m trades, I didn’t have to start at a lower tier, but I don’t have a pension, I don’t have lifetime medical.

These are issues that are important to me. Obviously we all need huge wage increases across the board because we see what profits these companies are making, and it’s time for them to give back what everyone has lost over a decade now, 15 years almost. So yeah, like I said, support our pickets, our contract. Let’s not fight each other over, Well, you shouldn’t make this,” or, You should just be happy you have a job.” I hate reading the comments on any of the union posts that I see, I try to ignore it. But if you’re fed up, then organize the union in your own workplace, whether it’s an office or a factory or a store. You deserve better wages and benefits too. I’ll leave it at that.

Well, I’m happy you did mention the reform one member, one vote. That was the best thing since sliced bread. I can say that because I used to be in leadership and I did consider our former presidents and VPs as my superiors. That was such a slap in the face in what we endured, and it was vital that we had a one member, one vote pass. I am so happy that we have Shawn Fain as our president and the rest of the IEB board that did get elected. What people had to realize, these individuals was part of the rank and file just months ago. They was in these plants. They had endured everything that we’re talking about, have talked about for this past hour. They knew everything that we experienced. So, it is so important that these individuals are in these positions that they are in, and that’s why this contract will be epic. It will be epic.

Record profits, record contracts. That’s the sum of everything what Shawn’s been saying. We are not trying to be greedy. We just asking for our piece of the pie. We do not care what the CEOs are making. Just think, if they will give us a couple of million of dollars of what they’re getting a year of their $24 million salary and gave it back to the members, that would be epic. We’re not asking for much. All we asking for is our due diligence. And I do have a pension, but I do want my brothers and sisters that came in there after me to have a pension because even the ones that have a pension, they didn’t even realize. I had to tell a full-time worker that has a pension, I said, They don’t get nothing when they leave, literally.” And she’s like, What you mean?” I said, They don’t have dental, glasses. They don’t have nothing. They just quit.” And she was like, Oh my God.”

This last week, I’m telling someone this. So, that’s the division that this has caused and that’s why it’s so important for them to get a pension also. Their bodies are hurting just as our body hurting. My feet ache. When I get off the car, I have to calm down and just sit in a car for a minute because my feet is hurting. Their feet are hurting, their back’s going to be hurting, they’re not going to be able to see, they may need dentures. This is what we are talking about. Yes, we had to go back and say, Hey, we not going to offer pensions,” but they did make a deal and say, Hey, once we do better, we going to give back.” Now, all that then went out the window and they just want to say, Oh, we just got these workers and this is what it is.”

No, this is not what it is. This is not what it has to be. We all are one big family in the UAW and if we get pinches, they need to have pinches too. Everything that we are asking for, we are not asking for much. We just asking for a little. And I love to come back because it was so much that needed to be said as well, but I love Shawn Fain and I thank him for everything that he is out there trying to do, and I pray for his mental health because this stuff is not easy, mentally, physically, none of it. I pray for all of our union leadership. Thank you.

Your union is not the leadership, you are the union. The rank and file is the union.

Nicholas Livick: Yeah. If you think your union’s not working, UAWD, TDU, we have proven that you can reform your union, you can transform your union. Your union is not the leadership, you are the union. The rank and file is the union. The union is not an outside entity, it is you. If you have a problem with it, step up and change it, and you can change it in a really big way. How can people support us? There’s the obvious things, like come down to our picket line and talk to people. I told you this, Max, on our last interview. At my plant, that’d be 2000 different stories, 2000 different reasons of why people are standing out there. But more importantly, if you really want to support us, if you really want American manufacturing to exist, we got to buy union-made products that are built here.

You got to support your communities, and you got to check your VINs and make sure they’re not built somewhere else. If you want these jobs to stay here, if you want these jobs to be good for the next generation, that’s a really big part of it, is supporting union labor, supporting hardworking people like those on this call and the 150,000 of us across the nation. And it’s so much bigger than just us because for every job in the auto planet, it supports seven… I’ve seen numbers, seven to nine jobs outside of it. That’s in the supply chain. So, you got your suppliers and all of these people depend on this industry. This is over a million jobs we’re talking about that’s going to be affected if we go out. So come down to our picket lines, support us, talk to us. We’re not unfriendly people. We’re everyday people like you, like the person that you wave hi to as you’re driving down the street. You know, you give them the two-finger, the three-finger wave, whatever your choice is, on the steering wheel?

We’re just like you. We just want our fair shake at the table. We want these jobs to be good paying jobs and we want corporate America to stop fleecing the workers. That’s what this is. Shawn always says the talking heads say class warfare, but it’s only class warfare when the working class people start stepping up. And I’m sorry if you can hear my son in the background. It’s getting to be his bedtime and he wanted to come down and say hi. So, I thank you guys for coming. Thank you, Max, for having us on. There’s so much, we could sit down and we could probably talk for five hours. There’s so much that can be said about this fight and what it’s going to mean, and I can’t wait to read the analysis of it from Labor Notes and everything else in the future, and The Real News Network, and see what you guys have to think about it, but I appreciate you guys and thank you for having me.

Marcelina Pedraza: Thank you again for having me as well. And honestly, I didn’t even know about this podcast, but I am a subscriber to In These Times, so I get the magazine at home, a hard copy.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, In These Times rocks, baby.

Nicholas Livick: Thanks, Max.

Torice Sawyer: And I will subscribe as well and start supporting your podcast. I think this a wonderful communication piece for the working class and for everything that you’re trying to do, so I would love to support you as well.

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Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemu​si​carchive​.org)

  • Jules Taylor, Working People” Theme Song

Music / Post-Production: Jules Taylor

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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