Several dozen autoworkers expressed their feelings at the “Autoworker Speakout” in Detroit on Aug. 23. This annual event, organized by the rank-and-file advocacy group “Autoworker Caravan,” is an opportunity for autoworkers to voice their anger about the concessions they have made and the record profits at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. This year workers talked about the contracts between the United Auto Workers and the Detroit Three, which expire in the middle of September.
“I’m here because I care about eliminating two-tier, I care about eliminating the alternative work schedule, and I care about moving forward,” said Alex Wassell, a member of UAW Local 869 at Chrysler Warren Stamping near Detroit.
“My grandparents came from Alabama to work for GM. My family members have 600 years at GM,” said Antwann Green, from Local 659 in Flint. “This ain’t what my family fought for.”
Many of those who spoke were third- and fourth-generation autoworkers. Much of what their grandparents fought for — through long strikes to win union recognition, decent wages, benefits and pensions — has been taken away in recent contracts.
The autoworkers’ union fought for “equal pay for equal work.” Now one of the most objectionable concessions, introduced into auto contracts in 2007, is two-tier pay. Workers hired after October 2007 make at best two-thirds the pay of their higher-seniority counterparts for the same work. Several speakers pointed out that we also have to address unequal benefits and the fact that second-tier workers don’t get a pension.
The cost of living allowance, negotiated over 60 years ago to protect wages against inflation, was taken away in 2009 during the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. Since then, this concession has cost autoworkers $4.10 an hour in pay. The annual improvement factor, won around the same time as COLA to compensate workers for their ever-increasing productivity, was taken away in 2007. Now the majority of autoworkers haven’t had a raise in 10 years.
Alternative work schedules and mandatory overtime are key issues. AWS force a majority of workers to labor every Saturday for 10 hours, for which they are paid straight time. The overtime premium is only paid after 40 hours in a week, which is mandatory under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but not after eight hours in a day, as had been required under the contract until 2009.
The overwhelming majority of workers at the meeting raised their hands when asked if they would vote “no” on a contract that didn’t get rid of the two-tier wage system. As they have done in the past, activists in the room were prepared to campaign in their plants for a no vote if necessary. Judy Wraight, a retired Local 600 Ford worker, described the 2009 campaign against mid-contract concessions. Ford did not declare bankruptcy, but wanted the same givebacks that had been squeezed out of GM and Chrysler workers. The concessions were rejected resoundingly.
Workers listened to presentations about autoworkers in Mexico, striking GM workers in Brazil and Colombian GM workers who had been fired.
Workers discussed the fact that they might need to strike to get a decent contract. “Be prepared to take to the streets,” said Scott Houldieson, vice president of Local 551 at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant. “That’s the only way we got anything in the past.”