Autoworkers at the Big 3 once set the gold standard for middle class life, with good wages and lifelong benefits. But that hasn’t been true for a long time.
Now the question is: Can the record contracts that have emerged from the United Auto Workers strike actually turn things around?
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
While raises of 25 persent or more, cost of living allowances tied to inflation, and increased 401(k) retirement contributions are impressive wins — more than the union has gotten in the past 22 years combined — many autoworkers note the gains only partially make up for what was lost over decades of concessions.
And as autoworkers go to their union halls to vote on the deals, feelings are mixed. Early vote tallies so far show a sizable minority are voting no.
According to vote trackers on the UAW’s website, 34 percent of the roughly 25,000 votes cast by Ford workers as of Tuesday midday were no votes. A majority of workers who cast ballots at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant, the company’s largest plant, voted no.
Meanwhile, 48 percent of the roughly 16,000 votes cast by General Motors workers so far have been no, including a majority of those cast at GM’s Flint Assembly and Spring Hill, Tenn., plants. (As of Tuesday midday, according to the vote tracker, fewer than 5,000 workers at Stellantis had cast votes, with 82% voting in favor of the contract.)
Distrust and disappointment among some workers
Jerry Coleman, who has worked at the Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, as a temporary employee since 2018, says he’s a definite no vote.
“If I could vote no ten times, I would,” he says.
A large part of it is distrust. After reading the contract language, he’s not convinced Stellantis will follow through with what’s been promised, including a conversion to permanent status for temps like himself.
But beyond that, he’s frustrated that only by 2027 will autoworkers’ wages reach what they were twenty years ago, when adjusted for inflation. Concessions made just before the 2008 financial crisis cut auto wages in half and ended lifelong retirement benefits, relieving the Big 3 of a crippling cost burden.
“[Autoworkers] lost everything in one contract,” Coleman says. “There’s no reason why they can’t give this stuff back to us in one contract.”
As auto wages fell, overtime provided path to middle class
In another part of the Jeep plant, Jim Cooper says he’ll probably vote yes on the new contract but wonders if the union could still extract more. Having started at the plant a decade ago at less than $16 an hour, Cooper now earns Stellantis’ top production wage, nearly $32 an hour. He expects that to rise to just over $40 an hour by 2027.
“It’s significant, and I’m not going to say it’s not,” he says.
But under the new contract, Cooper anticipates he’ll lose some overtime, which he relies on to support his family of six, when his plant moves from 10-hour shifts to traditional eight-hour shifts.
“I’m going to be balancing between my rate going up and my hours coming down,” he says.
Working a full week plus many Saturdays has allowed Cooper to have a middle class life in Toledo. He and his wife own their home, a 1,200 square-foot ranch, and he earns enough so that his wife doesn’t have to work. Instead she runs the PTAs and band boosters at their children’s schools.
“This is all stuff that working at the plant has given us,” he says.
But life has been far from easy. He recently had to have both his hips replaced and was out on paid medical leave for eight months, taking home $760 per week in medical pay, less than half what he’d normally earn with overtime. Inflation has also challenged their family budget.
“It’s been a give and take,” says Cooper. “I feel like we’re ahead for awhile, and then we would start to fade back.”
Golden era for auto jobs won't return with snap of a finger
Charley Ballard, a longtime economist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., understands why there’s some dissatisfaction among autoworkers, even with record offers on the table.
For decades, workers at the Big 3 weren’t just getting by. They earned enough to own nice cars and homes, even a cottage at the lake.
“That was real,” he says. “There was there was a generation of people who graduated from Lansing Sexton High School who almost literally walked across the street to upper-middle-class wages and benefits.”
Ballard points out the success of the American auto industry in the mid-20th century was historically unprecedented and can’t just be reproduced with the snap of a finger.
After teetering for several years, the golden era at the Big 3 came to a hard close in 2008 when the auto industry nearly collapsed during the financial crisis.
And since, life has been very different for autoworkers. Starting wages have been closer to what you can make at Target. Workers must plan for their own retirement.
A better safety net and some breathing room
In Chicago, Ford electrician Marcelina Pedraza is disappointed the new contract doesn’t include retiree health care.
“Because a lot of folks know Medicare is not enough,” she says.
Still, she voted yes, hoping that the new contract will give her and her daughter a better safety net. With the pay raise, she anticipates being able to contribute some of her own money to her 401(k) retirement account and take care of bills.
“I’ll be able to pay off some credit card debt, that’s for sure,” she says. “I’ll be able to do some home improvement projects that I’ve been putting off.”
Cooper is among those who don’t expect to ever see a return of the retirement benefits that previous generations of autoworkers enjoyed.
“I don’t think any companies want to really take on those liabilities anymore,” he says.
He is glad that Stellantis agreed to increase its 401(k) contributions. And the extra income he’d start seeing right away under the new contract would provide some breathing room — and a chance to take his family to Disney.
“Probably not next year. Maybe 2025,” he says, once he recovers from the financial hits of being out on medical leave and out on strike.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.