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The hot labor summer isn’t over yet.
In a week’s time, the United Auto Workers may launch a strike of 150,000 of its members if the Big Three automakers – Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) – fail to meet the workers’ demands in new contracts by September 14.
The Big Three made a quarter trillion dollars over the past decade. And with non-union electric vehicle and battery manufacturing on the rise in the United States, this may be a make or break moment for the union. So, with a more militant leadership at its helm, the UAW is demanding more than they have in a long time: serious wage increases; the elimination of tiers; the return of pensions, COLA, and retiree healthcare; and a 32-hour workweek.
For this episode, we unpack the auto workers’ demands, their stakes for the auto industry and the broader working class, and the burgeoning EV transition. We also explore how during this round of negotiations, the union is doing something it hasn’t done in a very long time. Inspired by the Teamsters, the UAW is conducting a contract campaign, with rallies, practice pickets, and all.
To discuss all this and more, we spoke with two UAW activists in Metro Detroit. Luigi Gjokaj was an assembly worker at Stellantis since 2010 and is the newly elected vice president of UAW Local 51. Jessie Kelly is a skilled moldmaker at General Motors and alternate committeeperson at UAW Local 160.
You’ll also hear from auto workers in Metro Detroit and Chicago, who attended rallies and practice pickets to drum up unity before the strike deadline.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Jessie Kelly: That’s what’s at stake. It’s making sure that my son doesn’t have to go through the same struggles that I went through, doesn’t have to go through working 80 hours a week and missing out on his children’s life to make sure that he can somehow secure an opportunity just to have a middle class life, but still live paycheck to paycheck.
Luigi Gjokaj: Well, we’re not asking anymore. We got sick of putting our hand up and asking and asking, and now all these hands are balling up into a little fist and we’re saying, “No more.” I mean, how do you have someone with $20, $30, $40 million compensation trying to tell me or one of my union brothers or sisters working right next to me, that, you know what, the $18 an hour they’re making is enough?
Teddy Ostrow: Hello my name is Teddy Ostrow. Welcome to The Upsurge, a podcast about the future of the American labor movement.
This podcast previously focused on the unprecedented labor fight this year at UPS. But now, we’ve shifted our focus to the renewed militancy of the United Auto Workers, the legendary union that in a week’s time may launch a strike of 150,000 of its members at the Big Three automakers. That’s Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, which was previously Chrysler.
The Upsurge is produced in partnership with In These Times and The Real News Network. Both are nonprofit media organizations that cover the labor movement closely. Check them out at inthesetimes.com and therealnews.com where you can also find an archive of all our past episodes.
And quick reminder: This is a listener-supported podcast. So please, if you want it to keep going, head on over to patreon.com/upsurgepod and become a monthly contributor today. You can find a link in the description. We cannot do this without you.
On to the show.
Shawn Fain: These companies have made a quarter of a trillion dollars in the last decade, the thing that they drive for is corporate greed. That’s what this is all about.
Teddy Ostrow: If you’re an Upsurge listener, you may remember that voice. That’s Shawn Fain, the new, militant president of the United Auto Workers union.
Shawn Fain: When 26 billionaires have as much wealth as half of humanity, 26 people have as much wealth as half of humanity, we have to turn this system upside down. That does not work for people, period.
Teddy Ostrow: And that was him talking to me at a July 15th rally in Long Island for the UPS Teamsters, who in a little over a month would go on to ratify a contract that reaped significant concessions from the package giant.
Fain was there in solidarity, but his own union had just started high-stakes negotiations of their own. That is, for the contract that covers nearly 150,000 UAW members at the Big Three automakers nationwide, which expires on September 14. And almost immediately, it became clear that the corporations didn’t want to play ball.
Shawn Fain: I’m gonna file it in its proper place ’cause that’s where it belongs, the trash ’cause that’s what it is.
Teddy Ostrow: You can’t see it but that was a Facebook Live clip of Fain throwing the contract proposals by Stellantis, which were riddled with concessions to the company, into the trashcan. He did the same with Ford’s proposals just a couple weeks later.
And just last week, the union filed unfair labor practice charges against Stellantis and GM for failing to bargain in good faith.
See, the Big Three automakers, as Fain told me, made a quarter trillion dollars over the past decade. Yes, a trillion with a “T.” That means they’ve more than recovered from the bottoms they hit during the Great Recession, when the union acquiesced to several rounds of concessions to prop up the companies.
So with a more militant union leadership at its the helm, the UAW is demanding more from the profit-flush Big 3 than they have in a long time.
That includes wage increases of over 40%, in line with the increases the companies’ executives saw over the last four years. A big one: the elimination of wage and benefit tiers, much like the Teamsters demanded and won at UPS.
And among several other important demands, they’re also looking to reinstate defined benefit pensions, retiree medical benefits, and cost-of-living wage increases that go up as inflation does. All of those are benefits UAW members used to have, but they’ve been taken away over the past 15 years.
So in the past couple weeks, UAW members hit the ballot box and authorized the union to call a strike by 97%. And the leadership has indicated that they may be willing to strike all three companies at once, if their demands aren’t met.
Shawn Fain: We’re gonna get it done, we’ll get it done by any means necessary.
Teddy Ostrow: That means 150,000 autoworkers may be hitting the picket line, as soon as next week. September 14th is the strike deadline.
Now, this is a big deal. With non-union electric vehicle and battery manufacturing on the rise in the United States, this feels like a make or break moment for the union. How will the union expand its membership, improve working peoples’ lives, if its existing members are on the back foot?
We’ll unpack more context in future shows, but in this episode, we’re focused on how during this round of negotiations, the UAW is doing something it hasn’t done in a very long time: a contract campaign.
Shawn Fain: We’ve got 25 days to the deadline, so I got a question for you: Are you ready to rumble?
Teddy Ostrow: For this episode I spoke at length with two UAW activists, Jessie Kelly and Luigi Gjokaj, about the workers’ demands, and how union leaders and rank-and-file are organizing the membership to unite around them.
But in preparation for the interview, I spoke to workers around the country: in Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Louisville and Buffalo. Some of them even sent me audio from local actions, but all of them told me the same thing: They’ve never seen anything like this at their union.
Here’s Paul Davidson, a Local 212 union steward at Stellantis, who attended a large campaign rally in Metro Detroit.
Paul Davidson: The unity is breathtaking. Yeah. We need to get this back going. It’s good to see unions are getting back strong again and doing what’s necessary by showing unity.
Teddy Ostrow: Inspired by the Teamsters, autoworkers even set up practice pickets in several states.
Chants: Just practicing for a just contract.
Teddy Ostrow: And lots of workers are getting involved in the union for the first time. In Chicago, Ford assembly worker Danny Morales explained:
Danny Morales: I was basically motivated to currently get involved with the union. I’m a member of the strike committee here at Local 551. I was inspired by the Teamsters with the way they were able to band together and fight. And win themselves a better contract. So I’m looking for that exact same fight with my brothers and sisters to get what we deserve.
Teddy Ostrow: To discuss all this and more, I was lucky enough to speak with two UAW activists in Metro Detroit who have been putting in the work to prepare their union family to strike -- if they have to.
Luigi Gjokaj is the newly elected vice president of UAW Local 51. Before then he was an assembly worker at Stellantis since 2010. Jessie Kelly is a skilled trades moldmaker at General Motors and alternate committeeperson at UAW Local 160, which is kind of like a shop steward for those unfamiliar with the lingo.
Jessie, who is a member of the Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus, was actually on strike for 40 days in 2019 with 40,000 of her GM coworkers, an action she explains in our interview didn’t really win much for the union. This time could be different.
We cover a lot of ground in this interview, and if you want more context before hopping in, I do encourage you to go listen to Episode 5 of The Upsurge and our July 13th bonus episode with UAW leaders Brandon Mancilla and Dan Vicente.
Jessie Kelly and Luigi Jo Kai, welcome to The Upsurge.
Luigi Gjokaj: Thanks for having us.
Jessie Kelly: Thank you so much for using this platform to draw attention to our fight.
Teddy Ostrow: To start, can you guys just briefly introduce yourselves? Tell us your story, your automaker in the union, you know, what positions have you held, where and in which local unions.
Jessie Kelly: So I started 14 years ago at the Warren Tech Center. I started as a temporary on-call housekeeper with a unit called Airmark, which is a third party unit. I worked my way up through different sectors of the UAW. I ended up being the committee person for Airmark, and then I sat as a trustee on the executive board for Local 160.
Inside Aramark, I was a housekeeper, and then I was an industrial painter, and then I was maintenance. And then I took a temporary position inside of General Motors. I worked for both Aramark and General Motors for three years before I finally accepted a full-time position at General Motors as an apprentice. And now I am a skilled trades mold maker inside of the Plaster Shop.
Teddy Ostrow: And Luigi.
Luigi Gjokaj: I started in 2010 as a SVR, which stands for Summer Vacation Replacement. so when we first got hired in and got the email that, “Hey, you’re gonna work for Chrysler,” it was as a summertime, basically after 119 days, you were let go, you were just a summer replacement.
And once we got there, they actually told us after our 119 days, we’d be full time, I kind of started off like any other regular worker would, just kind of came in, did my job, went home, didn’t care too much to get involved with things like the union and stuff. I was like, I’m kind of one of the guys that just does his job every day.
I don’t need my union. And my favorite phrase to tell people is, “You never think you’re gonna need your union until you need your union.” And it was actually, I didn’t actually need them. Someone else did. And I had brought awareness to a situation that was going on and really saw what the power of collective bargaining and having a union can do.
‘Cause you know, being a non-union person my whole life, previous to that, even though my grandfather had worked at Chrysler for 30 odd years, it was so different from non-union shops. You could call your steward, they could come correct the action. It wasn’t just arbitrarily “You go do this ’cause I told you so,” it was like, “No, there’s a contract. You’re gonna uphold it. You’re gonna abide by it. And if you don’t, there’s a grievance that’s gonna be written.” And that’s kind of what sparked me wanting to get involved a little bit.
So I ran for the executive board, at Local 7, which is Jefferson North Assembly Plant, affectionately called JNAP. And at the time we were building the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Dodge Durango, after winning a term on the executive board, I transferred over to the Mac assembly plant and they were the first new plant built in Detroit in probably 30 some odd years. They were gonna be doing the Grand Cherokee, the new model, after the EO and Fiat merger, which became Stellantis. But I’ll probably not call it that. The rest of the podcast, it’s still Chrysler. Once I got there, I was appointed as the backup committee person, because we had some Covid related issues that had hit at the time when Covid was just about to start ravaging the whole country and shut the whole place down.
I spoke up real loud about what was going on, and the committee person at the time was like, “Hey, this is a kindred spirit right here.” A guy who’s gonna speak out and not be afraid, you know, to put it all on the line, was the backup committee person who was acting as shop steward. And then I ran for vice president and I am the newly elected vice president of my Local. So, real excited about that.
Teddy Ostrow: What we’re dealing with here and what I want to talk to you guys about is something we haven’t seen from the United Auto Workers in a really long time, certainly in my lifetime and decades, maybe you guys too. And that’s a contract campaign. We saw this quite triumphantly at the Teamsters Union at UPS this year. We covered that very heavily on this show. When this posts, we’ll roughly be a week out from the September 14th contract expiration, and strike deadline at the Big Three automakers.
Can you guys unpack for me what you’re doing right now? I know you guys are really hard at work, busy organizing across locals within your region, but also more broadly across the union. You’re organizing the rank-and-file for a contract campaign, and as I’ve been told, you know, the UAW has a culture of abiding by a strike.
You guys will strike if you’re called for one, but not necessarily this grassroots organizing culture, which it seems that you guys are trying to cultivate right now. So maybe in explaining this contract campaign, you can compare this to what you’ve seen in prior contracts too.
Jessie Kelly: Okay. So it’s such an intricate question. I wanna make sure to do it justice because you’re absolutely correct. We have never, ever seen a contract campaign before. I’m a third generation UAW member. My mom was extremely involved, especially at my local, Local 160. So I walked my first picket line at five years old. I’ve seen the newspaper strike, so it was kind of ingrained in me. I remember being a member of General Motors in 2019 when a strike was called, and I was bestowed with the responsibility of saying, “Get everything together the week prior to the contract deadline in case we go out on strike, but we’re not gonna go on strike, so it’s gonna be fine.”
Right? Like, just get together everything that you can just as an in-case so we can show the international union that we’re checking the boxes and everything’s okay. I go, okay, I’ve never been on a strike myself. So I said, okay, I do some rough scheduling. I do some rough, like Google doc-ing, whatever it may be.
And I remember even calling up the officials saying like, “Should there be a strike come Sunday, we’re gonna need you to do this.” And they laughed, right? They’re like, “Okay, we’ll see you at work on Monday.” And no one believed it. And then all of a sudden, boom, my president, my chairman go down and they get told we’re going on a national strike.
Every single plant is going out, all 40,000 members. And I’m the chair of communications at my local. So, I remember telling people through the text messaging system, a national strike was called, please report at the hall at this time. Tomorrow we’ll discuss what we’re gonna do.
And people were just in shock. And then there wasn’t any communication coming down either. So we called the national strike. There was no plan, there was no communication. Nobody knew what they were striking for. And it’s hard to build that solidarity and create that momentum and keep everybody going, especially for what ended up being a 40 day strike when you are not even sure what you’re striking for.
So the idea that this time around we have a member’s demand list and we know exactly what we’re fighting for. We have the ability to set our membership up and educate them on the things that we’re fighting for prior to the expiration of the deadline. It’s so different in such a positive way, and it really is building like this sense of grassroots efforts and solidarity that I’ve never seen before inside of the UAW. I have seen it at the Detroit newspaper. I have seen it in UPS, but I’ve never seen it at the UAW and I think they’re ready for it. I think it’s a very positive change. All of my members are telling me like, this is crazy to know exactly the things that we’re asking for prior to the expiration.
Teddy Ostrow: Right. Thank you so much for setting that up like that. Luigi, what, what is that translating to in terms of actions in the union? What are the kinds of things you guys are doing, to organize the workers and get them ready?
Luigi Gjokaj: I mean, piggybacking a little bit off of Jessie there, we’ve never seen this kind of mobilization, this kind of action and this kind of support from the top down. Whereas previously it was kind of from the bottom up, right? We got our top international president, the leader so to speak, of the entire UAW, talking to us every single week like we are right now.
I mean, you didn’t get that kind of access before. He’s doing Zooms, he’s doing Facebook live. I know for our Vice President, Richie Boyer, who’s the lead for the Chrysler Division, is doing a weekly update on, “Hey, here’s what’s going on.” I mean, I’ve never felt this kind of enthusiasm in the UAW and it’s Chrysler, GM, Ford, white, black man, woman, doesn’t matter, immigrant, non-immigrant. Like, it’s all walks of life. And we all have this common brotherhood, sisterhood, and just this unity of, “Hey, we’re going to get what we should have never, ever, ever lost.” And it has a feel, honestly, like the sixties, like everything comes full circle.
Well, we’re not asking anymore. We got sick of putting our hand up and asking and asking, and now all these hands are balling up into a little fist and we’re saying, “No more.”
I mean, how do you have someone with $20, $30, $40 million in compensation trying to tell me or one of my union brothers or sisters working right next to me, that the $18 an hour they’re making is enough?
Maybe it was 30 years ago, but the cost of milk, since that’s what everyone always talks about, has gone up. The price of everything has gone up. Price of their vehicles continue to go up, but my wages remain stagnant. and people are fed up now. We’re not just taking it as, “Okay, no problem.”
We’ll wait. Another contract. We kept hearing that in our career. How many times did we hear that? “Oh, you guys will get there eventually. Don’t worry, you won’t get in this one, but you’ll get it in the next one and you’ll get it in the next one.”
We were in a position where we were hurting, right? The company was hurting. And who did they ask to take the blow for them? The worker. They didn’t ask the CEO, they didn’t ask the stockholder, they asked the American taxpayer. “Yo, take this hit for us and we’ll make you guys whole. We’ll do the right thing.” And they didn’t. And now we’re kind of like, “Yo man, 12, 13 years in, we’re gonna get everything back that we never should have lost.” And we’re not actually asking for a hell of a lot more. We’re just asking to be made back even.
Teddy Ostrow: And just so people understand what you’re talking about there, the Big Three automakers, I believe all three, beginning in 2007, there was sort of this concession that created tiers in the contract that new workers would not receive pensions and they would not receive retiree healthcare.
This was worsened over time, especially as then Chrysler and GM filed for bankruptcy and were bailed out. Ford narrowly avoided it, through a loan that it had secured earlier. However, it was just concession after concession to sort of prop up these companies that had basically gone down under, so as you said, the taxpayer, but also the workers who really had to take the fall.
You were talking, Luigi, about all this solidarity that you’re seeing and, and that is being built, right? You guys are putting that together. You guys are doing the organizing work to make that happen for this contract campaign. So I wanna hear about the rallies that have been going on over the past couple weeks. The practice pickets, 10 minute meetings. What are the ways that you guys are actually on the shop floor, in the union hall, getting people to get on the same page for the first time in a very long time.
Jessie Kelly: We’ve seen UPS and we’ve seen the practice pickets and I had never seen anything like that. I’ve seen rallies before. I had seen contract campaigns, but I had never seen actual physical signs of saying like, just practicing for a just contract. And I remember like being at my house and just scrolling through Facebook and a picture came up of a UPS driver, and he was holding a sign that said, just practicing for a just contract.
And I was like, “Whoa, this is incredible. This is like honestly the cutest thing that I have ever seen.” And I like cried, right? Like I cried real tears and I was like, this is so lame. But I was like, that is adorable. We need to do that. Like we need to do that. We need to build solidarity. I remember in 2019, some of my members had never been on a strike line, so you are asking them to, like Luigi said in earlier, to play the Super Bowl when they never even went through the tryouts, right?
You’re like, boom, boom, strike. Go out there. win us a good contract when you’ve never even tried this out before or like flexing your muscles before you even went to the gym. so when they were doing that, I was like, “Wow, what a way to bring solidarity and recognition and just an understanding of, ‘this is what we’re gonna do eventually if we have to.’”
Not only that, you’re showing the company that you’re willing to do it and that you’re willing to do it on your own time. I’ll work a 10 hour shift, or I’ll work a 12 hour shift and I’ll still go out there with my brothers and sisters because that’s how important it’s to me. I think that that’s very eye-opening to everybody, and it was just thrilling to see.
When I seen and I was like, “We have to do this. We have to adopt this method. This is fantastic.” We wanted to do that and that my particular event ended up turning into a rally, which was phenomenal. We had a rally at region one and I think like…
Luigi Gjokaj: That was the first rally I’d seen like that ever.
Jessie Kelly: Yeah. Maybe a thousand people. I think it was a thousand. It might have been over.
Luigi Gjokaj: It was a thousand.
Jessie Kelly: There was a lot of people.
We walked out there together and it was just packed. I mean, people were under trees and they were on the hill and I was like, “Whoa.” Like. They’re ready. That’s such an amazing thing and an amazing feeling. Even to just look out and see everybody in their red on a Sunday and during like a Woodward Dream cruise weekend where they could be out cruising their car and instead they’re there at a rally.
It was just incredible. And the day prior I did an educational class at my hall, preparing my members for a strike. And 300 people had shown up to that. And like even one of my own committee men were like, “Don’t do it that day. You’re gonna get six people tops.” And I remember we walked into the hall and they were like, “Whoa, there’s like 300, 400 members here.”
Because they just wanna hear about what’s gonna happen. They wanna hear what we’re gonna fight for. They wanna hear why they think that we can win this fight. And so it was just like having those two days in a row showed me that like, our membership is ready. Like Shawn Fain said, they’re fed up, right?
I knew I was fed up a long time ago, but like, it’s just this incredible realization when you realize everybody is just as mad as you are and they’re ready to fight for it. It builds something inside of you where you’re like, “I’m not alone on the ship. We’re all ready for a different standard of living and we’re all ready for a different life…”
And I mean, if that’s not solidarity, I don’t know what is. And if the union isn’t collective action, it’s nothing else. Right? That’s what the whole premise of a union is, is just collective action, and they’re ready to join in collective action and win this. So it’s incredible.
Teddy Ostrow: And I think that was really evident, not only at the rallies we saw, which I believe were in Chicago, Metro Detroit, Louisville as well.
But in the practice pickets. And I know Luigi, you led a practice picket, in Detroit, with your local, maybe it was involving more locals than just yours. Can you talk a little bit about that? What, what was that like?
Luigi Gjokaj: So I forgot exactly how we came up with the idea. but it definitely came from the UPS practice picket. That’s where we first saw it, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is genius.” It’s, like Jessie had said earlier, I’m like, we’re scrimmaging before the big game because we have so many members that have never been on strike.
So, you know, it’s always like, well, what do you do during the strike?
Some people are like, “Oh, you just walk around in the line. It’s real easy. There’s nothing to it.” Well, I can tell you secondhand, right? Because she can tell you firsthand what it’s like from day one to week one to week three to the rain, to worrying about the snow to being cold as hell at night. I know secondhand what it was like seeing the enthusiasm.
The stuff happened on the first days and, and [we were] like, “wow, I didn’t realize that would happen.” Oh man, I thought the cops would be on our side because they’re union too. And instead they’re over there harassing the people for exercising their freedom to picket, to strike, to speak.
And it was just like, “Wow, man. Like, I’m glad I’m here to see this [at a] boots on the ground at ground level so I know what to expect if we’re up next.
With the practice picket, what UPS did was awesome. I think it was great. They got a really, really good contract without having to go through a strike. So when I brought this to my local, to my membership about a practice picket, people were just so on board.
You had a lot of people that weren’t, some of the older folks, [saying] we don’t need to do that. And it’s not gonna be a kind of same thing like Jessie ran into in 19, all of a sudden, bam, strike. What do we do? So I didn’t want that to happen. You know, having spoken to her about her experience, I wanted it to be better.
So I got with some of the other mouthpieces in the plant, some in leadership positions, some not. And this thing turned into something bigger than I could have imagined. I mean, it started off as a regular local practice picket rally. And at the end of the day we had the international president over there, and supporters from multiple locals.
The neighborhood when they saw us marching was honking their horns and waving at us and cheering us on. It made every single news station locally, nationally. I mean the Wall Street Journal’s writing about it, CBS News, Fox. I mean, they hit everywhere. And I think it probably was playing in France where our CEO’s sitting in his chateau.
I’m sure it was hitting at the mansion, the second mansion that our COO had in Mexico that, “Hey baby, east side of Detroit, the heart of Motor City is alive and well, and we’re ready.”
Teddy Ostrow: Awesome. Yeah, thanks for going through that. It seems like you guys aren’t only doing practice pickets, like you said, it’s rallies, even down to like the small stuff. Not every local is necessarily on board with doing some of these bigger actions, but rank and filers are taking it upon themselves to, before a shift or on a break, you know, taking 10 minutes to speak to coworkers, 10 people, 15 people, 30 people about the demands. As I’ve read in places like Labor Notes and I’ve spoken with Chris Budnick down in Kentucky, it really just seems like people are getting involved, in a way that just hasn’t been seen in a very long time.
I wanna turn to the issues. You guys have rattled off a couple already, but let’s turn to the issues and to the stakes of this fight for you guys, for auto workers, and not only UAW members.
So first, can you guys break down what are the union’s major demands? I know there’s a lot of them, but maybe start with what are the most important ones, to you guys personally, to people in your plants? And really just help listeners understand what the stakes are for workers’ lives and their wellbeing to solve these issues, to overcome the concessions of the past decade or more?
Jessie Kelly: Okay. Yeah. So let’s talk about it. What’s at stake is everything. Not to be so dramatic, but what’s at stake is literally everything. So, I can speak for me. I graduated high school in 2008. I immediately entered the workforce. My mom, although a union member, had three daughters and as a single mom, and could not afford to send us to college.
So, I entered the workforce as NAFTA was in full force inside of the metro Detroit area. So there was zero opportunity for me. I just knew I needed to have a job, so I did whatever I could to secure a job. As I told you earlier in the introduction, I went through so many different ostracized departments inside of the auto industry because even though my mom at 17 could go and join General Motors and make a good middle class living as being a groundskeeper, that wasn’t an option for me and it wasn’t an option for my siblings.
So for me it looked a lot like a third party housekeeper making $11 an hour and being a temp and being an on-call and all of these little ostracized pockets that are just exploiting workers to make the corporations more and more money. and so that’s what’s at stake. It’s making sure that my son doesn’t have to go through the same struggles that I went through, doesn’t have to go through working 80 hours a week and missing out on his children’s life to make sure that he can somehow secure an opportunity just to have a middle class life, but still live paycheck to paycheck. I mean, I’m a lot luckier than most people in my generation, and I still live paycheck to paycheck even though I am doing better than everybody else.
That’s a really sad reality of where the generation that we’re living in and the challenges that this generation faces. So, that’s why I’m so dramatic when I say what’s at stake, it’s everything. Like I said at the rally, like for my son’s generation, it’s not about protecting the American dream or fighting for the American dream. It’s literally like resuscitating it from the dead. It’s up to us to make sure that that’s a reality for the next generations. That they have the ability to have opportunity, that they have the ability to have a hobby, that they have the ability to do more in life than just wake up and work from the moment they’re awake until the moment it’s time for them to sleep.
I don’t wanna see that for him, and I don’t wanna see that for any of our children or any of our future generations, and I don’t wanna see that for us. So this fight really is about that and it’s about the middle class as a whole. Because if we don’t win now we’re, we’re gonna continue to lose and we’re gonna continue to have a race to the bottom
So that is how big this fight really is. So we’ll talk a little bit about the member’s demands and so I’ll take some, and I think Luigi, you can take some, so we’ll start with eliminating tiers on wages and benefits.
This is a big deal. They found a way to make us pitted against ourselves. The fact that you can do the same exact job next to somebody and make half of the amount of money and a quarter of the benefits, it’s just not okay. It’s just not what’s right. There’s no loyalty in that. And we’re loyal to these companies every single day.
We’re loyal to these companies. We drive their products. We show up to work. We do the best that we can. We risk our health and we risk our time and we’re loyal to them. And they’re saying that you are not even worth half what the person next to you is worth and we’re not gonna give you benefits. And I think that in society we get really caught up in how much somebody makes in their hourly rate.
And we’re fighting for so much more than that. When I was a temp, I made half as much. My health insurance was only 25 percent as good as theirs. That’s a problem because just because your attempt does not mean that you’re not risking your health just as much as the person next to you.
I was breathing in the same toxic chemicals. I was doing the same backbreaking work, but I wasn’t allowed to have the same health insurance. That’s a huge problem. So that’s one of our top ones. Substantial wage increases. This is for anybody in the working class, period. Inflation has rapidly grown and we need to be on par with that.
Our standard of living, like I said, went down 13% since our last agreement. We can’t afford the same lifestyle that we could afford four years ago. So we deserve the same wage increases that we know our CEOs are giving themselves. Restore COLA, the cost of living adjustment.
So that’s just that our wages are protected from inflation. So there’s a quick calculation that can be done every three months like we’ve seen inside of John Deere that says, this is how much more you need to make to just have the same standard of living that you had three months ago. And that’s all we’re asking for is our wages to be protected against inflation.
Defined benefit pensions for all workers and reestablished retiree medical benefits. and this is where I get into reciprocated loyalty. We’re very, very loyal to these companies and we give our whole lives to them. And I mean, I’ve genuinely given my whole life to General Motors and missed out on three years of my son’s life, giving my life to General Motors while I was a temporary employee.
And all we’re asking for in return is that when it is time for us to be done, that they’re loyal to us and that we can retire and we can have health insurance when we retire. And we’re risking our health for them for 30, 40, 50 years, however long we stay in these plans. And we just wanna make sure that after all of that time and all the things we were exposed to and all of the backbreaking work that we still have health insurance when we retire.
I mean, it’s not that big of an ask, it’s just reciprocated loyalty.
Teddy Ostrow: Just to pause there for a second, the retiree, medical benefits, the pension, these were offered to workers who began their work at these auto companies before 2007 and they were taken away.
This is part of the many, many tiers that we’ve seen at these companies that are pitting workers against each other. I also think it speaks to something you alluded to, Jessie, which is that these jobs, some of them harm your body, with life altering injuries…Maybe we could just linger on that for a bit, and get to some of the other demands as well. But can you just speak to that, what this job is like in the plant?
Luigi Gjokaj: So I got seven nice holes in my arm from a workplace injury and, thankfully because I had a union steward and a union safety rep, it was documented as a workplace injury.
Initially they did not want to say it happened at work. Even though there were witnesses there, there was safety protocol in place. This rack was supposed to have been fixed. There was a documented problem rack. They just didn’t want to have the comp claim against the plant. and had it been a non-union workshop, a lot of things could have happened, and trust me, they try like hell and unfortunately sometimes get away with it, even in union shops. but that injury happened to me a little over four years ago. Before that I was a professional boxer and mixed martial artist. So you know, that training is rigorous. You put your body through hell.
I’d never had surgery before in my entire life. Broken nose, a couple scratches, maybe some stitches here and there, but I never actually had to have complete reconstructive surgery on a body part. And that’s what happened, just from somebody not following the protocol that they were supposed to at work.
I wasn’t able to hold my daughter for the first two weeks of her life in this right arm. My strong arm. I had a one and a half year old at the time, so my kids were about 13 months apart. So I was grabbing the one year old in one arm. And, you know, my daughter’s crying. I can’t get her outta the bassinet, I gotta set him down, and then he’s crying. Gotta pick her up, put her in one arm. And it wasn’t my fault. It was the company’s fault. They didn’t do what they were supposed to do. Right? They want me to come into work every single day, do my job, right, every single day. And I’m not even gonna get an ‘attaboy, a pat on the back. And I don’t want that. We really don’t. We’re not asking for a lot.
We’re not selfish people. I’m not expecting to come to work every day: “Oh, thank you for coming to work. Thank you for doing your job.” Just let me do my job and let me go home. The way I came in, in one piece and that day it didn’t happen, and I still got lingering injuries that happened here to here and there.
But you know what? We battle on, we truck on, we do what we gotta do. And I think that’s kind of like the theme for the whole thing. We just want to be able to keep on keeping on. And the way everything is right now. I mean, we barely got our heads above water. Now. Where do they expect us to go after 30 years of that? I’m 13 years into it. I went in as the best shape of my life. Mind you, as a professional athlete, I’ve got 17 more years. I don’t know what the residual effects of the job are gonna have. So if I give you 30, you should be able to give me a pension.
Teddy Ostrow: Jessie, you were talking about loyalty, and Luigi, you’re talking about working at a company for 30 years. To do that sometimes, even if you’re able to do that, we have auto workers who are moving 1, 2, 3, 4, I don’t even know how many times because of these companies closing plants.
It’s more than just a plant. It’s more than people just losing jobs. This is almost the closure, the sort of devastation of entire communities. And I think it’s something like 65 plant closures between these three companies in the past 20 years. What are you guys demanding with regard to this? How does this affect people?
Luigi Gjokaj: So when a plant closes, it devastates an entire community. We don’t gotta look any further back than Belvedere assembly, right?
That plant kind of was responsible for the entire town in one way or another, right? The workers got their wages from the plant, from working at the plant. The city got some tax increase from taxing the workers’ paycheck. ‘Cause remember they gave incentives to the corporation, right?
So corporate welfare is cool, right when they want it. But notwithstanding that they got their wages from the company, then they go out and spend that money at a local diner at the grocery store, at the movie theater, take the kids out to the park to an event, and that money stays within the community, and everyone thrives in one shape or another. If you look at the Great Recession…when these plants were idled to one shift or to a skeleton crew, it’s not really running as much. Everybody felt it. Everybody in metro Detroit, ’cause we’re an automotive town, right?
We’re an automotive state. Everyone in Michigan felt it, it might’ve been a recession everywhere else, but we were going through a depression, you know, here in the metro Detroit area, and it had a ripple effect across the entire country. I think right around that time, people started realizing how important manufacturing was, and we started looking at the raw end of deals we were getting.
And it was directly from the corporations, right? Because they’re not gonna just shut down a plant and cut their own throat and all of a sudden say, you know, this profitable product we have, we’re just gonna stop building it. We’re done. No. What they do is they move it somewhere. They can build it cheaper.
And then you displace all those workers, whether it be you move it to a different state and have people trek halfway across their country, uproot their lives and their families, and tell them, well, if you don’t go to this plant here, then you can just consider yourself terminated, right? ‘Cause we’re getting a better tax incentive over here.
Or they’re uprooting the entire plant and the product as they did in Belvedere, in Illinois, and they’re now building it in Mexico, right? Nothing against my Mexican automotive brothers and sisters over there. We’re fighting for their wages as well, right? We want them brought to our standard of living as well, right?
Because if we’re making the same amount of money now, they can’t whipsaw us across the country, across the continent, It’s one thing to whipsaw internally amongst each other. It’s another when you can do it across the border because of how laws are structured.
Another thing I’d love to just touch on, and I know I’m kind of jumping around here. It moved to Mexico and the price of that vehicle never went down. Not one penny, actually, as a slap in the face to the American consumer. It went up. Why?
Because the company has a built-in cost of living. They have their own version of COLA, move it somewhere else, charge a little more every single year. When we came in as tier twos, as temporary workers, that half pay. Okay. The price of that vehicle never went down. It kept going up and going up and going up and going up.
It is the literal definition of, of runaway corporatism and corporate greed. It’s just to maximize the profits and squeeze as much blood out of that rock as you can.
Jessie Kelly: So I just wanna talk to that a little bit too, because I just want the listener to imagine themselves, waking up tomorrow in Youngstown, Ohio and hearing that Lordstown is closing down, you’ve given 30 years of loyalty to General Motors inside of Youngtown, Ohio. And you wake up and you hear this, you hear the blazer, instead of going to Youngstown is gonna go to Mexico and they’re shutting down, or I’m sorry. ‘Cause they get real creative with language, so they’re gonna allocate your plant.
‘Cause that doesn’t mean we’re, we’re shutting it down. We’re just gonna allocate it so that we’re not legally liable for the repercussions of our actions. So we’re gonna allocate the plant and all of those workers wake up and they find out they don’t have a job tomorrow, and they’re like, “Okay, I have to follow my job.”
So they’re left with a decision of leaving the only place that they’ve ever known and leaving their spouse, and leaving their children possibly and uprooting their whole entire lives and the whole life that they built, even though they always did the right thing, right, they graduated and they got a job and they were loyal to a company and they always did the right thing.
And it didn’t matter that they did the right thing. They have a decision to make, “Do I move halfway across the country to keep my job and keep my pension and keep my health insurance and be able to provide for my family, or do I stay here and rot because there’s nothing left in this community for me.”
So they say, “I’m gonna leave. I’m gonna follow my job, and I’m gonna go to Missouri, or I’m gonna go to Arlington, or I’m gonna go to Detroit.” So they’re like, “Let me put my house on the market.” Well, now their house just depreciated in value $65,000 overnight because everybody else just put their house on the market too, because everybody else has to follow their job.
It just decimates entire communities. I know for Youngstown there was even like talks about closing the public school system because there was gonna be no more tax dollars to be able to provide the public school system inside of that community because General Motors made a decision on an executive board to allocate the blazer strictly to Mexico where they could exploit the workers instead of to Youngstown where they had legacy costs.
And when we say legacy costs, we’re talking about just the cost of a worker.
So one of our demands is that we can strike over plant closures. We need the ability to strike over plant closures because there’ve been 65 plant closures amongst the Big Three. And those are 65 communities that have been destroyed by a simple decision and an executive board to stay competitive and to make Wall Street happy.
Luigi Gjokaj: Yeah. I mean, where else would it make sense that someone can tell you, I’m gonna take something away from you, but you’re gonna keep building it until we’re ready to transition it outta here. No, you’re gonna take it away. Guess what? I’m gonna make it hurt. I’m gonna withhold my labor because you can’t force me to work.
Gimme the ability to withhold my labor from that company so they can’t keep sucking the well dry, because at some point it’s the snake eating its own tail. This is gonna kill us all eventually at some point.
Right? Who the hell’s gonna keep buying this stuff when there’s no more money to buy it? I mean, the auto industry was created by the workforce, right? They paid them enough money to be able to afford the product they bought.
Teddy Ostrow: Right. One of the ways. One of the methods through which they, they sort of, gouge their prices and keep up their profits is by hiring temps temporary workers. and this brings us to, I think, another really key demand. And Jessie, I know you were a temp. Can you share what that was like and what you guys are trying to do with regard to temps?
Jessie Kelly: Yeah. So that, that brings us to another one of our members’ demands, and that’s to end the abuse of temp workers. I was a temporary employee for three years. I equate that to like literal hell on earth. The three years that I spent as a temporary employee were the most miserable three years that I’ve ever spent as a working person inside of America.
So one of the reasons why I say it was so bad was because you had absolutely no path or no means to an end of when that was going to end for you or when you would achieve the goal of no longer being a temporary employee. And it was just abundantly clear and abundantly understood and accepted that you were an exploited worker for the benefits of the people next to you.
One of the hardest things about being a temp worker was that you were only allowed, three days of time off for the whole entire year. And that was three unpaid days of time off. And so, I was a temp for three years, one of the years that I was a temporary employee. I had the unfortunate circumstance of my grandmother and my aunt dying in the same year.
And, when my grandmother died, I took a day off for her visitation and I took a day off for her funeral because you do not have the protections as a regular employee of having bereavement time. So that counted as two days out of my three days, I was allowed off for the whole entire year. Three weeks later, my aunt died, unfortunately.
And, I remember I went to my boss and I explained my situation. I said, I know I just took these days off, but I gave you a death certificate. I gave you an obituary. You know, my grandma died. Unfortunately, my aunt has died now too. And I would really like to be able to take her viewing off and her funeral off.
And he said, “No, you can only choose one of those days. You’re a temporary employee, you can only choose one of those days.” So I said, okay. So I took the funeral off because for me it felt more important than the viewing. But I remember being at work that day, and I’m welding pre-production vehicles, and I’m just so upset.
I was just so angry. I’m thinking, you know, like, I came in here for the last three years, every single day for the last three years, and I’ve sacrificed that time with my family and I’ve sacrificed that time with my son. And they won’t even say, “Okay, you had a death in your family and you’ve given the proof and you’ve given the records to prove this,” and you can’t even take that time off.
That was so frustrating and I still made it through and I said, okay, it’s gonna be worth it because maybe it ends up with a full-time position. and I remember six months later, I got influenza B. We were still in the same calendar year. So now I have influenza B and I call my supervisor and I say to him, I have influenza B and I just went to the emergency room and I’m very sick and I’ll bring you all of my documentation to prove that I have influenza B.
But I don’t know if it’s good for me to come into work and give everybody else influenza. And he said, “No, you’re a temporary worker. We’ve already had this discussion. You have to come to work.” So I remember I pulled up a trash can next to a pre-production vehicle and I’m spot welding a car.
And as I’m spot welding the car, every couple of welds I have to throw up into a trash can. And I had to do this because if I didn’t, I was gonna lose my job and I was gonna lose the opportunity that I just spent three years trying to achieve. And for me it worked out okay because for me, I went to an apprenticeship and I don’t even wanna say okay, I just wanna say it’s semi worked out.
I was given an opportunity to have a job where I can live paycheck to paycheck [unlike] the other 400 temps that I was with…all of them being laid off overnight. One day all 400 of them walked into a room on a Monday one day after I got my apprenticeship, and they just said, “Sorry, we don’t need your services anymore.”
After some five, six years of being a temporary employee and spending 40 to 60 hours dedicating their lives and showing loyalty to a corporation just to get an opportunity, got walked off of the job site. And I’ll always remember that day because, although I was spared, most of my friends were not.
And they walked them out to their car and they wouldn’t even let them say goodbye to their union brothers and sisters.
That’s the type of thing that we’re fighting for. It’s disgusting. And those are the types of things that made General Motors’ record breaking profits that no one talks about.
Teddy Ostrow: Wow. Yeah, I mean it’s just, it’s unbelievable…I’ve heard about someone working six years as a temp, and I know that one of the demands that some people are calling for is to just hire the temps. All the temps right now, and perhaps, you know, if you work 90 days as a temp, that’s the cutoff, you get hired as a permanent worker.
One last demand that I really want to cover, ’cause I think it’s super important not just for auto workers, but as a precedent for the rest of the working class and other unions, is a 32 hour work week at 40 hours pay. This is something that the UAW called for in the 1930s. Why is this so central?
Luigi Gjokaj: I mean, to people who think that a 32 hour work week is crazy, I mean, it was crazy to talk about a 40 hour work week. At what point do we categorize what is and isn’t insane. You know, at the time when they came up with the 40 hour work week, it was eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, right?
‘Cause we gotta sleep and eight hours to do whatever the hell you want. And I think everyone’s earned that just as a human being. I mean, we’re so bad about doing what I want to do for eight hours, right? We were all so quick to and excited to grow up and become adults so we could do what we wanted to do, right?
And then we had to get jobs and we were like, “Oh, I can’t do what I wanna do. I gotta do what they want me to do.” So what’s wrong with negotiating? The amount of time that I’m gonna spend you telling me what I have to do, right? Because it’s a necessary evil. We all gotta work, right?
Anyone who thinks that auto workers just working a 40 hour work week have never stepped foot inside of a plant, you got some places that’ll have a 40 hour here and there. That’s not the case. We’re not working 40 hours. What’s wrong with doing better?
Jessie Kelly: I wanna talk a little bit about the 32 hour work week too.
We live in a society where technology has disproportionately only advantaged the rich. Over and over and over again, we see that technology has benefited them and the 1% and never benefited us. So we have to worry about our jobs and we have to worry about being laid off because we have AI or we have virtual reality, or we have technology that has overtaken the jobs that we live [off of] and who gets rich off of that.
But the CEOs, these huge corporations, and never us, we don’t get to reap in the benefits of technology growing as a society. We just watch everybody else reap in it. So we eventually have to come to terms where a 32 hour work week is the norm, because if we don’t, we can’t keep everybody gainfully employed.
Because of global warming, we have to transition into EVs. We know this. Maybe EVs aren’t the ultimate answer, but it is the answer today. Unfortunately when we’re talking about the transition into EVs, we’re also talking about losing 40% of the components that it takes to make an internal combustion engine to an EV.
Which means that the people that make those components, their job ceases to exist. And we should celebrate that as a society, right? We should celebrate that and we should say, “Wow, look at us like we’ve realized this, this huge problem that we have in society, and we’ve come together collectively to find a way to remedy this situation.”
And that’s through electric vehicles instead of internal combustion engines. That’s gonna help with global warming and it’s gonna help with this, you know, green initiative that we have going. But we don’t look at it that way. The companies, they take it and they use it as a mask to be able to exploit workers more, and they take the technology and they take the advancements that we have, and they use it as a means to undercut the worker and just make more money.
And so all of us together should say, wow, it takes 40% less components. Let’s go down to a 32 hour work week. Let’s spend more time with our families. Let’s have a better work life balance. Let’s be able to be there for the children and be there for the next generation and do all of these things. But instead, they’re saying, “We’re gonna lay you all off and we’re gonna make more money on the fact that we’re dealing with this crisis inside of society.”
And that’s problematic.
Teddy Ostrow: I’m so glad you brought in the EVs ’cause that’s exactly where I was gonna go next, which is to talk about the stakes for the greater auto industry, which is in change, right?
We are seeing a change in this country’s manufacturing makeup, massive investment spurred by government legislation, all being sort of funneled into this green transition. But it doesn’t really seem like it’s very much a just transition as, as unions and other labor advocates would hope it to be.
And the UAW has kind of taken up the mantle of trying to push for equity across the industry as the EV industry ramps up. We just saw an interim wage agreement at the GM Battery Factory in Lordstown, at Ultium cells where folks got around like $4 wage increases, I believe two to $4 wage increases,
But the leadership framed it as really just the start, because the goal would be to bring these jobs up to the standards of the regular combustion engine jobs themselves, right? The UAW is trying to improve. So I just wanted to maybe give you guys a chance to talk about the stakes for the industry and what’s going on at these new jobs at EV factories.
Luigi Gjokaj: To me, the biggest BS I heard with the whole electrification thing is that, “We have to pay less because [there are] less components and it’s a battery now that’s operating the vehicle.”
There’s this narrative that they’re trying to paint with, “Oh, it’s an easier job. It’s less components, it’s gonna require less people.” But at the end of the day, we’re circling back to what I said, right? Full circle. They’re paying less and still gonna charge more.
Go look at a mine in the Congo, and you tell me that it’s fair what they’re doing over there to get the product that they need for their EV, the lithium.
Go look at a lithium mine. Go look at a cobalt mine. Find out what they’re paying those people, right? If anything at all, they’re paying rock bottom prices for this technology, And yet you’re gonna sit there and charge more.I don’t know what kind of people they got writing their script, but it is absolute fiction and it is absolute fantasy in every sense of the word.
Jessie Kelly: You can’t sit there and say your material costs and your labor costs and your this cost and your that cost, and you know, we gotta keep the cost low, and yet you just made $12.4 billion in a quarter. Okay? In a quarter. That’s more money than most communities are gonna spend in a lifetime. Yeah. So let’s talk about Ultium’s interim deal. I’m glad for them. I think that I agree with Shawn Fain when he says it’s just a start, but taking a $16.65 an hour job and turning it into a $19.65 an hour job is not the answer. It’s not the means to the end. It’s not a win, for anybody.
It’s better than it was, but it’s not a win. And that’s why I’m really glad that he said it’s an interim deal.
And he’s not even patting himself on the back or anybody else on the back. He’s saying this is just what they were owed so far. And this is just the start to even begin to talk, because that’s correct. Those people deserve so much more because they are the future and because they are going to take our society in a positive way, and they’re going to secure our future in ways that really matter for our next generations and saving this planet and we owe them so much more than like a wage that will literally put you on government assistance.
It’s sad. It’s sad that General Motors did that, but to just build upon Luigi’s point: these are propulsion jobs. It doesn’t matter what source that General Motors is using to propel a vehicle. It’s just propulsion jobs. And so if we have already won inside of negotiation tables from decades to decades to decades, that this is the standard of living for a job that creates a propulsion system for a vehicle.
Why are we going back on that? Why do we have to re-win things that we’ve already won?
They’re just using it as a means to exploit more workers and to get more, and to make more record breaking profits. And that’s what it all ends up being inside of America, is that in order to sustain a competitive market, in order to do better than you did the quarter before, you have to take from somewhere.
And so what they’re doing is they’re constantly taking from the bottom, and that’s why we’re living in a society where that gap is growing. The 1% is getting smaller and we’re getting larger and we’re dying, right? The bottom half is dying while they’re getting richer and richer and richer and it’s sad and we need to draw attention to that.
Teddy Ostrow: We covered so much ground, thank you guys so much for doing this with me. I have to ask you though, in a last lightning round, because I know a lot of people are wondering this: are you guys gonna go on strike, you think, come September 14th?
Luigi Gjokaj: We need to do what we need to do.
Jessie Kelly: We’re gonna do what we need to do.
Teddy Ostrow: Well, we’ll see what you guys do. Jessie, and Luigi, thanks for joining me on The Upsurge.
Jessie Kelly: Thank you so much for having us.
Hosted by Teddy Ostrow
Edited by Teddy Ostrow and Ruby Walsh
Music by Casey Gallagher
Cover art by Devlin Claro Resetar
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Ruby Walsh is an audio producer from Brooklyn. She is a co-producer of The Upsurge podcast and a development producer for Giant Grin LLC. Formerly, she was the associate producer of Moyers on Democracy and wrote for BillMoyers.com.