As the United Auto Workers kept the big three automakers guessing about the union’s strike plans, the car manufacturers made a failed effort to head off the effects of the unprecedented labor action. Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis stalled production and moved parts out of plants across the country, according to rank-and-file workers, self-inflicting financial damage that could have been avoided by meeting workers’ demands.
In the weeks leading up to the strike, a cat-and-mouse game between the UAW and the companies unfolded, a version of guerrilla warfare between the parties. Through targeted walk-offs, the union aimed to disrupt the companies’ operations with the fewest possible workers, which would allow the union’s strike fund to last longer into the conflict — essentially forcing the companies to pay workers even during the strike period. The companies, meanwhile, sought to anticipate precisely which plants would be struck and reorganize production and distribution to minimize losses. The Big Three guessed badly.
A spokesperson for Stellantis, which is Chrysler’s parent company, said that it did not shutter any plants in anticipation of the strike and could not speak to component transfers, but that it was aware of “an equipment issue in one of our paint shops that caused some downtime.” A spokesperson for GM also said that the company had “not taken any steps to preemptively close any of our plants,” while Ford did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.
“These companies are conducting strikes on themselves.”
Brandon Mancilla, a director for the UAW’s Region 9A, which spans New England and the Northeast, told The Intercept that the auto manufacturers are creating more problems for themselves than they would have faced had they come to an agreement with the union before the contracts for its 150,000 workers expired last week. “Instead of bargaining in good faith and understanding our demands and meeting us at the table,” Mancilla said, “these companies are conducting strikes on themselves.”
The UAW did not announce the plants where it intended to hold work stoppages until just before the strike deadline last Thursday night. The targeted facilities — GM’s Wentzville Assembly Center outside St. Louis, Stellantis’s Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio, and two divisions of Ford’s Michigan plant — were not among those that workers reported companies making preparations at. So far, some 13,000 workers are on the picket line, affecting the production of classic American cars like the Jeep Wrangler and the Ford Bronco, with more to follow if the union’s contract negotiations are not concluded by week’s end.
In the run up to the strike, UAW members at auto plants from Georgia to Tennessee to Ohio took to Facebook and Twitter to share accounts of partial plant closures and faulty information from plant managers leading to chaos on shop floors across the country.
Scott Houldieson, a worker at the Ford assembly plant in Chicago, told The Intercept that company bosses seemed to have no idea where planned strikes were going to take place. “Our local plant management started emptying out vehicles from paint ovens and dip tanks. If they leave cars in there, they get ruined so they start emptying those out and preparing to shut the ovens down. So that’s what was happening here because they thought that our plant was going to be one that was called out,” Houldieson said. “The plant chairman was telling me that ours was the one they were going to strike.”
Houldieson said that other automakers had transferred parts from plants elsewhere in the country, including one in Tennessee. “At GM in Spring Hill, they loaded engines to send to Wentzville because they thought Spring Hill would be the target. Turns out Wentzville was where they struck, so there was a lot of disinformation out there that really put the company on their heels,” he added.
In other words, the company had moved product from a plant that was not striking and to one that did. (The GM spokesperson said that “there’s been no work interruption at Spring Hill as a result of the Wentzville strike.”)
Stellantis admitted that it was caught off guard and took preparations at plants that were not ultimately affected by the strike actions.
“Strike preparation and contingency planning is part of our normal process in a contract negotiation year — as a responsible business we have to do that,” a spokesperson told In These Times. “They made it very clear that a strike was possible and we did everything we needed to do to protect the business.”
Earlier this month, the industry-aligned publication Auto News published an article describing plants that UAW members would likely target, including Ford’s Livonia Transmission Plant in Michigan, its Lima Engine plant in Ohio, and the Cleveland Engine No. 1 facility. The article claimed Stellantis’s engine and transmission plants in Indiana and Michigan as well as three GM plants across three states were also likely strike targets. That list was regurgitated on CNBC, where a reporter said he got the information from “a source familiar with the UAW’s plans.” Not one of those plants ultimately saw a shutdown.
The UAW’s “stand up” strike strategy harkens back to the UAW strikes of the 1930s when workers “sat down” on shop floors, occupying factories and using guerrilla tactics to win the kind of contracts that made auto companies the gold standard for U.S. manufacturing jobs. During the Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike of 1936, workers employed diversionary tactics at a secondary GM plant to draw company security away from their primary target. The workers spread a rumor that they were going to target one plant, and when their employer acted on that false information, they snuck into a different plant that was their target all along. That action led to the union’s first recognition at one of the Big Three.
The strategy the UAW is currently employing is led by the union’s new militant president, Shawn Fain. He was elected in March after the UAW changed its election process from a delegate system to one member, one vote in the most recent leadership election. He has assumed a new posture for the union’s leadership: for example, refusing to endorse Joe Biden for president until he supports the UAW’s efforts to unionize electric vehicle facilities, and rejecting a ceremonial handshake with auto manufacturer bosses before the start of contract negotiations.
In the critical swing state of Michigan, where tens of thousands of UAW members work, the union holds an outsized influence over state politics and, in turn, nationwide races. That means union support will be crucial for Biden’s reelection chances in 2024. Capitalizing on the Biden administration’s tepid support for the UAW strike, Donald Trump announced he would speak to autoworkers this month, drawing condemnation from Fain.
Despite the Biden administration’s refusal to strongly support workers, other politicians are joining the fray, announcing their support for the UAW, and calling the president’s pre-strike assumption that workers wouldn’t strike delusional. “Are you out of your fucking minds?” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., allegedly screamed at one of Biden’s closest advisers, Steve Ricchetti.
The UAW’s key demands are shorter work weeks, the return of pensions and benefits, and wage increases to bring salaries in line with past levels. Fain has threatened the companies with even greater disruption should they fail to meet workers where they stand. “We’re going to keep hitting the company where we need to, when we need to. And we’re not going to keep waiting around forever while they drag this out,” Fain said on Monday. “I have been clear with the Big Three every step of the way. And I’m going to be crystal clear again right now. If we don’t make serious progress by noon on Friday, September 22nd, more locals will be called on to Stand Up and join the strike.”
Correction: September 19, 2023, 5:31 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article stated that Houldieson works at a General Motors plant; in fact, he works at a Ford plant.