Editor’s Note (10/30/23): This conversation was recorded on Oct. 16. Since then, UAW negotiators and all three of the Big 3 automakers (Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis) have reached tentative agreements, bringing the historic Stand Up Strike to an end, at least for now. UAW members will return to work this week while the union reviews the tentative agreements and the membership votes on whether or not to accept them as the terms for a new contract.
Over the past month and a half, United Auto Workers have continued to ramp up their strike at the Big 3 auto companies, calling workers at more plants to hit the picket line. As of today, Oct. 30, the UAW has reached tentative agreements with Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, and the historic Stand Up Strike has been put on pause while the union membership votes on whether or not to accept the TAs as the terms for a new contract. While we have been waiting every day for more updates on the UAW strike as it unfolds in real time, it’s important to remember that the issues within the auto industry—and the economy writ large—that led to this historic moment of struggle have been brewing for decades. In this episode, we talk with Sherry Cothren, who worked for 30 years at Ford Motor Company and retired just before her plant in Toledo, Ohio, closed in 2007. We also speak with Sherry’s son, Jeremiah, an architect turned visual journalist and producer whose primary focus captures vivid histories of human rights, social justice and migration.
Additional links/info below…
- United Auto Workers website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) Facebook page, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Jeff Schurhke, In These Times, “Here’s What UAW Workers Won in a “Historic” TA After Striking at Ford”
- Keith Brower Brown, Labor Notes, “Auto Workers Escalate: Surprise Strike at Massive Kentucky Ford Truck Plant“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “‘We’re All Workers’: Striking UAW and SAG-AFTRA Members Won’t Be Pitted Against Each Other“
- Teddy Ostrow & Ruby Walsh, The Upsurge / The Real News Network, “With Concessions Already Won, the UAW Strike Escalates“
Permanent links below…
- Working People Patreon page
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
Jules Taylor, “Working People” Theme Song
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Sherry Cothren: Hi. My name is Sherry Cothren. I am 66 years old. I am a UAW retiree. I worked at Ford Maumee Stamping, it was called at the time. Maumee is a suburb outside Toledo. I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, and I started August 22, 1977.
Jeremiah Cothren: And my name is Jeremiah Cothren. I’m a journalist based in New York City, and I’m also the son of Sherry Cothren. It’s great to have her in the studio, because it’s actually the first time I have a chance with Max to actually do an interview with her [laughs], not at the dinner table.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, 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 within In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
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We got a really, really great one coming out this week that I got to record in Matewan, West Virginia, where I was hanging out with our friends of the show, the great journalist Kim Kelly, Haeden Wright from the United Mine Workers down in Alabama, John Russell from The Holler. It was just a really, really great bonus episode that we got to record while we were all there in person in Matewan to present at the Museum of the Mine Wars in Matewan, West Virginia. So you guys don’t want to miss that, and you don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to support the show. Thank you all so much, and thank you all so much to everyone who is already a supporter. We really, really appreciate it.
My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and I am beyond excited to be sitting down with Sherry and Jeremiah. As you guys know, the United Auto Workers’ strike is continuing. We are recording this on Monday, Oct. 16, and these workers at all Big Three automakers, for the first time in the union’s history, all workers at all three of the Big Three are on strike at once. As we’ve covered here on the podcast, over at The Real News and on Breaking Points, this is a novel strategy that the union, led by reform president Shawn Fain, is employing called the stand-up strategy.
So even though workers at all three Big Three automakers (that’s Ford, Stellantis, and General Motors), even though workers at all three of those employers are on strike, not all of the workers at all of those plants are currently on strike. As we know, workers at three plants across the Big Three were called to be the first to strike four weeks ago. And as we speak, the strike is continuing, with potentially more plants being called to join the strike.
And just to give you guys an update on where we are right now, Monday, Ot.r 16, again, things may change by the time you hear this later this week, but what we know right now can be summed up in these two passages I’m going to read from two separate articles. The first one was published at the end of last week by our friends at Labor Notes. This was written by Keith Brower Brown. We will obviously link to both of these in the show notes.
But Keith Brower Brown wrote last week, “Every Friday for the past four weeks, Big Three CEOs have waited fearfully for UAW president Shawn Fain to announce which plants will strike next. But without warning on Wednesday afternoon, the union threw a haymaker: within 10 minutes, the UAW would be shutting down the vast Kentucky Truck Plant. This plant, on 500 acres outside Louisville, is one of Ford’s most profitable – Cranking out full-size SUVs and the Super Duty line of commercial trucks.
“‘We make almost half of Ford’s US revenue right here,’ says James White, who has worked in the plant for a decade. These 8,700 strikers joined the 25,000 already walking the lines at assembly plants and parts distribution centers across the country in the union’s escalating “stand-up” strike.”
And so I just wanted to pair that with another passage that is like a postscript to what I just read with Keith Brower Brown with a little more details about which plants are on strike. This was written by Kalea Hall at the Detroit News published earlier today. We will link to this piece as well. So she writes, “Monday marked day 32 of the UAW’s strike against the Detroit Three, which began on Sept. 15 with a targeted plant strike strategy. UAW president Shawn Fain first called out workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Stellantis’s Toledo Jeep Plant in Ohio, and GM’s Wentzville Assembly in Missouri. The strike has been expanded multiple times to include: all of the GM and Stellantis parts warehouses, GM’s Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant, Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, and, most recently, its profit-rich Kentucky Truck Plant.”
So that’s where we are right now. Shawn Fain and the UAW definitely have a taste for the theatrics, because I feel like we’re all on the edge of our seats, waiting to see who else is going to be called to the picket line. We’re all waiting with bated breath on updates from the bargaining table because, of course, what we ultimately want is for these workers, these retirees, to win the contract that they deserve, and so that is what we are fighting for. That’s what they’re fighting for. So we’re constantly checking our newsfeeds, seeing if there are updates. So that’s where we are right now as of Monday, Oct. 16. And we will, of course, be continuing to share updates with you all here on the pod, on social media, and at The Real News, so stay tuned for that.
But as we hit this moment in the strike, which began on Sept. 15, I think it’s really important to keep hearing from as many voices as we can and to hear from folks who have lived through and worked in this industry. Again, what that work is like, how they have seen the industry itself change over the years, how the union itself has changed, and just really providing that deeper human and historical context to what we’re watching unfold on the streets at these plants right now as we speak.
And so that’s why I was beyond excited when Jeremiah, who I’ve had the honor of working with on other journalism related things, reached out to me and said, hey, my mom worked in the auto industry all her life, and she’s got such incredible stories. Would you be interested in having her on the show? And I was like, bro, of course I’d be interested in having her on the show. Can you come on with me and interview her with me? So that’s why we’re all here.
And so let’s dive into it, because that’s enough from me. Sherry, I really want to get to know more about you and talk about… You mentioned when you got hired, and I’m just thinking about all that has changed in that time and all that you must have seen firsthand. But before we go through all of that, I just wanted to ask if you could tell our listeners a little more about yourself and your path into the auto industry. So walk us up to that fateful day when you got hired and then you walked in for your first shift.
Sherry Cothren: Oh, absolutely. Okay. I was really excited to start working at Ford Motor Company. Jer’s dad, I was dating him at the time, he got me in, and he never let me forget. But anyways, different story. We went in for orientation, and that was really very short. Back then, the orientation was very short, maybe, oh gosh, it wasn’t even a week because they may have just thrown us out on the floor after three days. So they basically trained us on safety. We had to wear safety glasses, earplugs, and sleevelets or a long sleeve because we worked with steel and it was just so sharp. Oh my goodness, it would just cut right through you. And those were requirements that we had to have.
And then when we got started, we had someone train us on the job – Oh, I’m sorry. I got hired as a production worker. And that person works on the line. At the beginning of the line, just picture a huge mold, and then we have a production worker would slide a huge sheet of steel, or metal, whatever, into the mold, and the huge press would come down and stamp it into a certain shape, and then it would travel all the way down the line until it stacked into a packing crate, as we called it.
And back then, the parts were so heavy. Oh my goodness. Well, you could imagine because they used the real deal. It wasn’t no aluminum, no plastic, none of that. And it was very, very hard work. I would come home every day, I was like, gosh, barely 20. I was really young when I started. And I would come home crying every day, and my mom was like, Sherry, do you really want to do this? But I actually had a plan in my head. I didn’t really want to tell her about it at the time. But anyway, she would put me in a nice warm bath and help me just and talk to me, and she talked me through it.
And the reason why I decided to work at Ford Motor… Well, first of all, let me tell you this before I forget. When I got that check, oh boy, that was sweet [Alvarez laughs]. That sealed the deal a little bit for someone my age making that much money. But my dad, he was an alcoholic, and he was very abusive to my mom, and he would abuse her in front of us as kids. And so I’m thinking to myself that when I get a good job, I’m going to get my mom and my siblings out of here, out of the house. So that actually was my biggest incentive to work at Ford.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, man. And to have all that on your shoulders at 20 is so wild to me. I was a dumbass when I was 20. Pardon my swearing. But even the thought that I would go work at a good union job so that I could help get my family out of such a terrifying situation, my head is spinning just thinking about that.
I wanted to ask a little more about that. So you were the oldest sibling?
Sherry Cothren: No, actually, I wasn’t. I had three older brothers, and two older sisters, and a brother under me. My older sister, she worked for, well they call it Stellantis now, we called it Jeep back in the day in Toledo, Ohio. She was working for Jeep. But my two brothers, they have special needs, and so they were unable to work and on disability and all of that. And then my brother that’s closest to me, 18 months apart, he enlisted in the military to get away from the abusive situation. Which he told me years later, because at the time I didn’t know why he left. And so I was like, well, I guess it’s up to me. I just couldn’t bear to see my mom treated that way. And I just watched her cry, that just bothered… Excuse me, I’m sorry. It gets to me a little bit. But yeah, so I was so determined to do that.
Maximillian Alvarez: I’m tearing up just hearing about it. It honestly reminds me a lot of my family. I remember recording, this is apropos because we’ve got you and your son here, and as I was telling you guys before we got recording, the very first episode of this show I ever did was with my dad, Jesus Alvarez, and we talked about his life. We talked about moving to this country from Mexico, his mom dying when he was six, his dad abandoning his family. They were very poor. They lived in Tijuana in a lean-to shack, and his dad was a migrant farm worker who just one year didn’t come back. But then everything was on their mom’s shoulders.
My dad was so close to my Grandma Josefina, but then she passed away from cancer when he was six. Then on her deathbed, she made my great-grandma, grandma Petra, we called her, promise that she would bring the children to the United States. And she did. It was tough because my tios were split up. They were put in different foster homes. It took many years for them to find each other again. But I didn’t know that growing up because growing up, I was just like, oh, all my uncles and aunts are here, and they love each other, and we hear all these great stories. But it wasn’t until we started doing these interviews that they revealed so much more about the past that was always a part of me and my family’s history, but I just didn’t know it.
And I remember my Tia Tere talking about how hard it was as the oldest when her three siblings were already in the states. She had to stay behind to try to get their paperwork ready, go to Mexico City and all of that. And when my Grandma Josefina was sick, she was the one who had to work to provide for them.
And so I remember recording another conversation after that first one with my dad when my tios said like, hey. Can we all sit down and tell you our side of that story? And I was like, yeah, please. So we sat down, I turned the recorder on, and they’re talking about this. And at one point, we all just started crying because my Tia Tere was talking about how hard it was having all that on her shoulders but how much she wanted to make my Grandma Josefina proud and take care of her siblings.
And what my dad said after that, after we all cried on the recording, – People can go back and listen to it, it’s in season two, it’s called “Mi Familia” – I think my dad said something, he’s like, this is the first time we’ve ever all talked about this. And I was like, for 60 years, you guys have been in each other’s lives, but you… It just broke my heart to think that the opportunity never presented itself or they never felt like they could do it.
So please don’t feel bad at all about getting choked up because that’s hard. What you lived through was so incredibly hard. That’s also what makes that such an incredibly powerful and heroic story because that’s exactly what we don’t think about. The cars that we drive that are symbols of America and American manufacturing are made by people like you coming from situations like this. And that is important. It’s important for people to understand who makes all the things that we depend on. It’s flesh and blood human beings like us. So sorry, I was just very touched by what you were saying. I went on a rant.
Sherry Cothren: Oh, it’s awesome. Thank you.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, Jeremiah, I was curious. I want to bring you in here. Speaking of which, when did you, I guess, what was it like for you having a mom who worked in the auto industry, and what sorts of things would you notice or pick up on or hear about as a kid that maybe stand out to you now?
Jeremiah Cothren: Well, it’s interesting, Maximillian, that how you speak, you talk about how you and your father were able to sit down and do an interview. I just want to say that the story about how my mom really got into working at Ford Motor Company, I didn’t know this until probably three years ago, four years, just before the pandemic. I was doing some work down in New Orleans, and it was my first time in New Orleans, I had a great time. I thought I’d bring my mom along. And it was amazing. We had such a great time. And I remember her and I sitting down at dinner once, and we were just talking about the good old days, and back in Ohio, and what things were like back then.
Now as I’ve developed in my career and as a journalist, I have so many questions as well about my family because as kids, we don’t always ask when we’re younger, and I was always very curious. She shared that story with me. And I have to say that it really touched me because not only have I seen the sacrifices that my mom had to make raising my sister and I, but I didn’t even know the half of it. I didn’t even know the whole story about what she had to do way even before I was even a thought in anyone’s imagination.
And I just want to say too, I just want to go back to, yes, my mom did raise my sister and I, so my mom, she was a single mom. So what I saw were the complete sacrifices that she had to make. And even still, supporting her brothers and supporting her sisters, growing up, she’s been like that since day one, or at least since my day one [laughs]. And I always told her, I said, listen, I think your journey is so important for people to understand and to listen to, not only for me because I’m ever so curious about my parents’ decisions and my mom’s choices growing up.
But listen, we were born and raised in Ohio, and not everyone knows what it’s like to grow up in the Rust Belt, in areas where there’s heavy manufacturing and things like that. I think people can forget. And I think it’s really important, which is why I love the work that you’re doing, Maximillian, because it reinforces the stories and the human connections that we are here and these stories do matter.
Maximillian Alvarez: Couldn’t put it better myself, baby. I think that’s beautifully put. I wanted to pick up on that before, Sherry, we go back into the plant. Tell me a little more about that, what it was like growing up in the Rust Belt in an area where industrial manufacturing was so important. I grew up in Southern California, and granted, we do have manufacturing out there, but it wasn’t visible. When I moved into Michigan and lived there for eight years, that was different. That was like, oh, this is part of the identity of this state, and so many people are connected to GM, Ford, or Jeep in ways that hit different to me when I was actually there and could see the impact that it had more so than it ever did for me in Southern California.
So I wanted to ask if you all could set that scene a little bit more as well. What was it like living and growing up in Toledo as an auto worker, the son of an auto worker, and then living through a period of deindustrialization? For folks who have never seen that firsthand, what was that over the course of your lives?
Sherry Cothren: Do you want me to start first?
Jeremiah Cothren: Go ahead, mom.
Sherry Cothren: Okay. All right. So when I was growing up, my dad, he was a union worker. He worked for a roofing company. He was able to support us at the time. My mom, she worked at a department store downtown and for a little bit, but I was so young, I can’t remember how long she worked there but it wasn’t for long because soon after, she became a housewife. I would like to point out, though, that my mom was from the South, and I think growing up in the South, just, gosh, it’s just a different way of thinking, I think. It’s like, stand by your man no matter what happens. Just do what you need to do. I was not having it. That’s why another thing is like, I don’t want to live a life like that. I want a better life and all that.
Anyway, so growing up, yes, it definitely was an industrial town. Glass City, Libbey, Jer, which one is that, Libbey-Owens Glass? Do you remember that one?
Jeremiah Cothren: Yeah, Libbey Glass, and then there was Owens Corning.
Sherry Cothren: Yes, Owens Corning. Yes. Thank you. Yes, yes. So that was a biggie back then as well because Toledo is known as a glass city. So that was really, really profitable back in the day. And of course, we had the different plants and all that. To me, it was like a small community back then. I did really well in school. My mom wouldn’t let me go to a predominantly Black school back in high school back in the day, so I had to transfer over to a predominantly white school. Gosh, that was just… If she only knew, that was even worse.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh [laughs].
Sherry Cothren: I got called the N word, all of that, and it was really, really, really bad, but I pushed through. It was just something I had to do. And again, like I said, I decided to go ahead. I was going to go to college and all that, but once I had the opportunity to get into Ford, I was like, well, this is fast money. Because if I went to college, I had to go a certain number of years and, of course, that would be money, and I wasn’t sure if my dad would help me get the education because my mom wasn’t working and all that. And at the time, looking back, I see that we didn’t really have a lot of money, but my dad was still able to take care… So I have to give him that credit. He kept the food on the table, a roof over our head, all that. It’s just that he suffered from alcoholism.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I wanted to ask really quickly about that if I can. We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, but I’m thinking about that timeline and what other union workers of color have told me over the past. Because I did not grow up in a union family. I grew up, in fact, in a very union non-sympathetic family in Southern California. And we were first generation Mexican American, so we also had that immigrant type of conservatism, where it’s like we came here, we worked hard, we did it the right way, and we don’t want to be defined by our race. We want to be defined by our hard work. So that was the upbringing that I had.
And unions felt like a thing of the past, something that was important in the old days, the black and white days. But in the ’90s and the 21st century, you just needed to go as far as your feet would carry you.
And yet, then I learned later more about my family and I learned about my Tio Miguel being a Teamster, and learned about other folks in the family who were union teachers. I also would hear little bits and pieces about what that did for Latinos and Black and Brown workers in the 20th century, how those jobs did provide a pathway to a middle class life that they felt wasn’t available in other industries.
Was that part of it, Sherry? Because setting aside all the other things about your father, the fact that he was a union worker at that time, that must have been quite a thing, and then you find your way into union work. What did being in a union mean for you at that point? Was there a strong culture of the union there? Did it feel like, particularly as a woman, as a woman of color, did it stand out as a path to sustaining yourself and your family that wasn’t available in non-union work?
Sherry Cothren: Yes. Yes, it absolutely did. It gave the security. Now, are you asking when I was a kid or once I started working at Ford?
Maximillian Alvarez: I guess both. Again, I’m asking out of ignorance because I didn’t grow up with any of this, so I’m curious what the union meant to you as a kid and then as a working age adult.
Sherry Cothren: Oh, okay. Well, as a kid, I would sit back and watch my dad. He would get up every morning, no matter how bad the hangover was. He had to have some real whoppers, but he was still going to get up off that bed, and go to work every day, and just do the cycle, so I could see the strong work ethic in him. And I know that my mom wanted to, but he didn’t want her to after a certain point. I guess he just wanted her to stay home with the kids and raise us and all that. And of course, and like you said, it is a strong community because in our neighborhood, it was a lot of people that were union workers. Again, it gave us a strong sense of security, which I could see. Even though I was really young, I could see that. Yes. So we were doing pretty good, I guess. Yes.
Jeremiah Cothren: Yeah. I think I’ll add as well. It was definitely a strong – I’m talking about when I was a kid. Like I said, of course my mom raised me, but also there were my, I’ll call the extended family, mom’s close friends were in the union. They were working at the Ford plant. They were working at Jeep. So the community was tight.
And all around, you’ll see my generation, I guess, and what my mom and her friends were able to provide, these jobs, these union jobs really allowed for a lot of upward mobility in a community that otherwise may not give them that same opportunity.
I remember driving on the highway, you see the massive Jeep plant. It’s massive. I don’t have the figures in front of me about how many people were employed back then with Jeep, but certainly with GM and with Ford, you’re talking large swathes of the population who are relying on these union jobs to provide for themselves and to provide for their family. I think we can’t forget that there’s… It’s the person doing the work, and it’s also the extension which happens to the generations afterward. Whether you’re talking about building wealth for your children or whether you’re trying to talk about how parents can save for college education. I’m a direct product of that because I benefit directly from the hard work from my mom.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, I think that’s beautifully put. And again, it’s something that I almost look at with envy later in life. The more I get to talk to folks like you all… I just got back from Matewan, West Virginia. I’m wearing this shirt that I got there at the Museum of the Mine Wars because I was presenting there. And the sense of history that is there, the pride and what working people lived and died for to get a union. To say that a company, a private company did not have total authority to dictate the conditions of everyone else’s lives, whether or not they had a house or a tent to live in or food to put on the table. The company stores, all the ways that private companies have tried to basically recreate serfdom and keep all of us as these nameless bodies that they can send into the mines to make them money.
I think I never learned about it in school, but people went to war over that. There was a literal war fought by coal miners and their families in Matewan against the company. That’s bonkers to me. When I first learned that, my jaw hit the floor. And I say all that to say, coming from a place where that was not a part of the history that I knew or identified with, to learn about it was so incredible, and you can still hear it from the folks there who talk about it.
I want to keep talking about that as we get closer to the current strike and what that means now. We’ve gone through such a period of change where, as I said, with de-industrialization, with the decline of union membership over the past 40, 50 years. It feels like that was all going away, but now there’s something coming back. There’s this energy. People are ready to fight. There’s talk about what are the new industries in the 21st century going to be? Are they going to be those union jobs that allow working people to provide for those families to live a comfortable, dignified, middle-class life? So I want us to bring that back up as we get closer to the current day strike.
But I wanted to just bring us back there to your days working at the plant, Sherry, and ask, remind me again, what was the year you started?
Sherry Cothren: 1977.
Maximillian Alvarez: 1977. Okay. So a lot going on in the country at that point. A lot going on in the world at that point. That’s right on the cusp of this period of “globalization,” which allowed so many manufacturers to pick up shop, move abroad, and build factories where they could exploit cheaper labor, yada, yada, yada.
But take me back to that time. You mentioned what it was like working in front of the stamper with this huge sheet of metal. For folks like me who have never seen the inside of an auto plant, keep tugging on that thread. Try to tell us what a typical week would look like for you. What kind of work you did, the folks you’re working with, and the memories that stick out to you about becoming a professional auto worker.
Sherry Cothren: Oh, okay. Well, I guess I can start with the work. Well, I started with the press. We had a press room. That’s where the press would stamp out the parts. Then we had an assembly, we call it an assembly, where we would take those parts from the press room and we put them in a machine, and the machine would weld the parts together. And sparks would just be flying all over the place, and we would get burnt. And if we stopped the line, we would get into trouble back then. We’ll get to that point. When I got closer to retirement, things were so much better.
But starting back then, they were all about production, production, production. Forget safety. Forget if you’re hair catches on fire. Oh, well, we’ll replace you. We’ll just keep going. That was the attitude that the company had. But thank goodness, we had a strong union. Oh my goodness. I was talking to Jer about that the other day.
I feel we had the best union, but that’s how… They really did fight for us as far as helping us to make things more safe because they were so much into production, the quantity of the parts that we had. From each, oh gosh, I’m trying to explain this. From each press, then the part would drop down onto a conveyor belt. That would come up to us, and we would grab that part and put it, again, like I said, put it in another press and stomp it down, and so on and so forth.
But we were not allowed to stop the belt. And there were so many parts on the line where the conveyor belt wouldn’t even move, if you can only picture that, because, again, they were just so much into production.
And unfortunately, we had a couple of deaths because of the want to go, go, go, go. Don’t shut the machine off. Don’t do this. There were two supervisors. It was so sad. Shortly after I started to work, we had the siren went off like, oh my gosh, someone hurt. So we’ve seen people rushing towards the back where one of the start of the press was where they would… Like I said, it was a huge sheet, and the extractor, you put the sheet in, the extractor would grab the part and just put it in the machine. [Exhales] Oh, gosh.
So anyways, a part got jammed, and a supervisor reached in and tried to unjam the part without shutting off the machine. We don’t know if his boss came down on him because he was our boss at the time. But he took it upon himself. He went in there and reached in there. Oh my goodness. And the machine just came down on him, and all you could see was he was bent over and all you could see were his legs just standing there in the machine. It was the most horrific… And to this day, I still think about that.
And the other supervisor, he got killed because of that as well. But at that time, we were dealing with plastic. We did have the plastic for some parts within the vehicle. When he reached in to try to unjam the plastic, he got caught up. So it was bad. OSHA existed, but it’s pretty tricky as far as that goes. Again, like I said, we had a really strong union, so I really can’t say how it was back then between OSHA because I can’t remember when they actually started.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, even so, there’s always… Whether we’re talking about farm workers or manufacturers, there’s a big difference between labor codes, labor laws, and enforcement.
Sherry Cothren: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: Sadly, I hear about this all too often in union shops and, obviously, especially in non-union shops, the ways that the OSHA regulations are just thrown out the window for the sake of production. Especially when you get people who maybe they’re temp workers like I was at the warehouse that I worked at, and maybe you see a violation, but you don’t want to speak up because you got to put food on the table, and your job is so unprotected that you’re not going to say anything.
Sherry Cothren: That’s right.
Maximillian Alvarez: There’s such a huge disconnect. Not to say that OSHA is nothing. We need OSHA. We need OSHA, NLRB. We need all these regulatory agencies to be fully staffed and be able to actually do their jobs. And to be clear, they are not. But I guess the point being is that even if we don’t recall the specifics about OSHA, there’s a big difference between what the codes say on paper and what it looks like on the shop floor.
Sherry Cothren: Yes, yes. So we had to, what we did… You know what we did though? As soon as our boss turned his back, we would just throw those parts on the floor. Because we weren’t about to get cut because the parts piled up right next to us, and we could easily have gotten cut, even with the sleevelets on.
And so they finally caught on because, as union workers, which again, what I loved about the people I worked with, we banded together. I think that is so important, for people to band together. Because looking back, I should have went into the union because I wasn’t afraid to speak up. It was some people that I would find myself working next to, I’d be like, you know what? This isn’t right. I’m going to stop this line. No, Sherry, don’t do that, da, da, da, just like you said, because they’re afraid to lose their job. But my mom always raised me, it’s like, well, Sherry, when you know you’re right, stand up for yourself. I could always hear that echoing in my ears. That was the thing.
So what we did was we banded together. We finally got together with the union. But oh my goodness, the union and the supervisors, they would be in the middle of the production just going at it, going at it, going at it, just cussing each other out. Because before that, it was before zero tolerance so they could do that. They could get away with it. We even do it with our bosses, but it all came together. But for a time there, it was really, really bad as far as that goes, as far as them not wanting to look out for our safety.
Jeremiah Cothren: Did you guys… You said the line had to keep going and going and going, but what happens if you, a very natural thing to do, what happens if you have to use the restroom?
Sherry Cothren: Okay, yes. We had a person, well, relief person or utility person, we called them that as well. They would cover at least… Maybe no more than four or five lines at the time. And so anyways, like I said, it would be one person, if we have to go, we would have to get ahold of them. We have to tell our boss. Or if we see a relief person walking around because during that time, they would just go around and clean up or salvage parts and all that, but they kept busy as well. But we had to ask to go to the restroom. And a lot of times, mm-mm (negative), they did not want to do that. They wanted us to drink water, for our health and all that. Oh, stay hydrated. But they did not want us to get off the line. It was bad.
Maximillian Alvarez: That is, again, sadly something that we still hear about. Everyone knows about the horror stories at Amazon warehouses, these workers who are literally being measured with computerized systems down to the second of how long it has taken them to complete tasks and how much “time off task” they have, to the point where people won’t go to the bathroom. They’ll piss in bottles or stuff like that because they’re terrified of that computer telling them that they’re going to lose their jobs. We haven’t addressed the root issues. We’ve only come up with more sophisticated means for exploiting people like the way that we did in the old days, which is wild to me.
Sherry Cothren: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I wanted to ask about those tasks. Because if there’s one thing that we know about the auto industry and what we’ve heard from auto workers in decades past, but even now, it’s like you said, it’s an assembly line. It’s a complex machine where everyone is doing an essential part to the point where you are stamping things out of sheet metal to driving them onto the road. A lot of things have to happen in between those things to make a car. And a lot of people have to do a lot of things to make the car up to the standard that you all do.
And so I wanted to ask if you could say a little more about that. The parts that are coming down the conveyor belt, you mentioned that they were heavy, that they were sharp, and you’re doing, I imagine, repetitive motions with them. So in your area of the plant, what sorts of materials were you working with and jobs were people doing in that part of the process?
Sherry Cothren: Okay. Well, I was, like you said, I was working with sheet metal, for sure every day. We rarely went over into the plastic area. I think it was like the seniority people were over there, but they didn’t have to deal with all this on the floor and on the assembly line and all that. And I’m sorry. What was the second part that you asked?
Maximillian Alvarez: Just like if you could go back there now and you had a camera and you were looking around. What were the other folks doing? What were the things they were working with at that time?
Sherry Cothren: Oh, okay. Yes. Okay. So we would be on the line, and then we have the utility person going around, and they would make sure that the different, that the floor… Because the floor stayed oily from the machines, of course, and they had to clean that up. And then we had the skilled trades. They had their area, because as soon as the line would go down, they would be right there. Bam. We were like, oh gosh, this is our chance to go to the bathroom or grab a drink, or da, da, da. No, no way. Because that’s what they were told to do. Do not let that line stop.
So anyways, we had to wear these thick, heavy gloves. Just picture a glove and then an extra pad that would go over there for extra protection. And then of course, the safety glasses. And you had to wear the safety glasses because of the environment that we were in. Let’s see. We had the skilled trades. We had the production workers. Oh, and we also had, well, I don’t know what they call them today, but we called them high load drive, I think they call them forklift drivers. And they had a job as well – Which I eventually trained to drive, by the way. I was so proud of myself because very few women did that. So I wanted to be one of the first to do it. And so anyways…
Maximillian Alvarez: My girl is forklift certified, baby [both laugh].
Sherry Cothren: That’s right. And everybody were like, Sherry, you can’t do it. I’d be like, you know what? I’m going to show you. Yes, I can. And I did [snaps][laughs]. Anyway, it was just good for me to get off the line, get away from all that. It was more freedom and all that. I got to work on the dock, and that was fun. But let’s see.
So anyways, we would stamp out the part, and then we would get done with stamping out the part, then there would be a person at the end of the line. And there would be a rack, container, but made out of… It’s hard to explain but it was a heavy container in order to hold the parts, and we would have to stack those in there. And usually, it was the low seniority had to do that because by the time it hits the end of that line, oh boy, that part was just so heavy. So you had to figure out a system to slide it off the belt without really actually lifting the part, just sliding into the thing. It’s like, okay.
And then our bosses would be right there just waiting for us to mess up. And that part we didn’t like. But we had to work together as a team because we knew what they were doing. They want to use every excuse to get rid of us because there was always somebody waiting in line to take our job.
Maximillian Alvarez: So you felt like at that time, even in a union shop, that management was just there waiting for an excuse to get rid of you guys and bring someone else in. So creating that culture of… Because that’s what it was like for me in the warehouse with all the temps, like I said.
I remember we were reminded daily. This was in the Great Recession, so this is when things were still really bad. And I remember driving to work or being dropped off at work by my mom at 4:00 in the morning, and there was always a group of shadows, silhouettes, standing outside the gate waiting to see if someone didn’t show up. And the managers always reminded us of that. If we ever had a complaint or if we were behind on a shipment, that was the thing they would say. They were like, we got guys out there waiting who could replace you. We could fire you at the drop of a hat if you guys don’t pick up the pace.
And I remember, I’ve talked about this on the show before, I still remember at the end of every day, no matter how long we had been there, even if we had been “temporary” workers for six, seven, eight, nine months, which defeats the purpose of calling us temporary. They would line us up at the end of a shift after 12 hours. We’d be dripping in sweat, and the managers would walk down the line and they would point to the people they wanted to come back the next day.
Sherry Cothren: Oh, gosh.
Maximillian Alvarez: And so I remember I saw guys who had been there for months who had gotten used to always getting pointed at, just the look of shock on their face when they didn’t get the finger pointed at them. And suddenly they were like, what am I going to do? I got to go back to the agency. I got to try to get assigned somewhere else. But suddenly the reality of, what am I going to do to feed myself and my family, you could see it literally setting in on their face. And I never forgot that. I’ve never forgiven that. It’s just wild to think that you all were going through that same thing with these managers over your shoulder, just waiting for you to slip up –
Sherry Cothren: Just waiting.
Maximillian Alvarez: …So they could get rid of you.
Sherry Cothren: Yes. And they didn’t want women there, because we got the really hard jobs. I don’t know what their mindset was, but we definitely got the… There were some women that, if they did sexual favors – I’m just keeping it real – Then they would get the good jobs. It’s just keeping it real. And myself, I didn’t do that. It wasn’t every woman that did that but there were some that did, and we always knew that they were going to get the good job. But we didn’t want to just do that. We didn’t want to put ourselves in that position. That’s not a good position that we wanted to be in, to look at like that.
And on the job, on the line, there were things going on on the line while we were working, but you just kept it moving and just churning. But I’m sure, like you said, it’s that way, I’m sure in other places as well that things go on.
Maximillian Alvarez: But to ask the obvious, you’re there in this high pressure situation with a line that’s going a mile a minute that you can’t stop, with heavy machinery and heavy parts that could cut your arm off, crush you. You gotta keep your head on a swivel. You’re doing these repetitive motions. So you’re already dealing with all of that. And then you got to deal with a bunch of sexist bullshit on the job. Is that what we’re talking about? You still get –
Sherry Cothren: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Could you say a little more about that, what you all were up against at that moment in the late ’70s and early ’80s? How different was it? I don’t know. I like to feel that as a culture, we’ve advanced. Maybe we’ve had a bit more… We’ve come to the realization that you can’t treat other people like that, regardless of their gender. But man, sometimes I hear these stories and I’m just blown away because I was like, that wasn’t that long ago that we were still doing all of this. But you don’t have to talk about anything you’re uncomfortable with. Just for folks who are younger listening to this, what kind of sexist environment were you dealing with at that time?
Sherry Cothren: Oh, okay. Well, let’s see. Well, first of all, like I said, I had too much respect for myself so there was no way I was going to go down that road. And so I would just get ready to work hard every day. But what I would see is I would see some women, they would sleep with the bosses or let them feel them up on the line and all that. But I knew that they didn’t like it, but they were just afraid. And like we mentioned before, we talked about how they just wanted their job. They needed their job.
But looking back, I would think probably if maybe a few of us could have got together and like, look, you don’t have to do that. But then again, they probably may not have wanted to work hard like us, because it was brutal. It was brutal. I’ve always been small boned and all that. And I remember somebody told me before I even started, oh, Sherry, you’ll never make it. You’re too little, all that. But you do what you have to do. But yeah, it was bad. It was bad.
Jeremiah Cothren: And if I could just ask too. What was it like when you… So Tamara was my sister. She’s older than me. She was born in 1980. So this makes it, what, three years after you started at Ford, Mom? So what was it like being pregnant with Tam at the time?
Sherry Cothren: I’m glad you brought that up because I did want to talk about that, Jer. I’m trying to think of everything. Oh, gosh. Now that was horrible. Anyways, when I first got pregnant with Tam and I was working and all that, and I didn’t tell them at first because we had heard they did not want that. They didn’t want a pregnant lady at a factory. I don’t know it’s because they didn’t know how to deal with that or how to deal with it because, obviously, we couldn’t do the hard work and all that, but we had the right to have a baby.
So anyways, when it started getting really bad for me, I went to the company nurse. And mind you, I say strictly company, you could go in there with your arm hanging out – I’m exaggerating, but anyways – Oh, go back to work. But you had to be really in bad shape for them to give you an excuse to not work. And when we were off work, let me say this, whenever we took off work for a doctor’s appointment or an [inaudible], we had to bring in a doctor’s excuse. But I guess that’s probably for anywhere so that’s no big deal.
But anyway, so when I started feeling… Because we had to stand on our feet. We were not allowed to sit down. I forgot to mention that earlier. We were definitely on our feet all day long, except for the breaks and all that. And so when I went in and I spoke with the company nurse, she said, Well, Sherry, she alluded to the fact that, oh, well, you should maybe just quit. She didn’t come right out and say it, but it’s like, well, we don’t have any work for you. You can’t do this.
And so I went and spoke with my doctor, and thank God I had a great doctor. She stood up to the company doctor, to the company and says, look, Sherry can’t do this. Sherry can’t do that, da, da, da. And she told me that she had my back from the beginning because she had had experiences with different companies like that. She seemed to get really upset. She said it drove her crazy when we were treated that way. And so she had to cover for me to get off work. We did have the six weeks off and that wasn’t enough… Well, anyway, whatever, but that was all that we were allowed at the time. I don’t know what it is now. And the bosses didn’t care if the woman was pregnant.
But with you, Jeremiah, I had to stop really early because Jer was a big baby, he just stayed at the bottom so he never turned. I guess TMI, too much information. But anyway, so I had to go to the nurse and get time off for that, but they gave me a hard time with you, when I was pregnant with you, Jer. I had the same doctor, thank God, and I fought to get the time off.
Jeremiah Cothren: Wow.
Sherry Cothren: Yeah.
Jeremiah Cothren: Yeah. I didn’t know that story.
Sherry Cothren: They definitely did not want pregnant ladies in there, for sure.
Maximillian Alvarez: Again, I’m still just… Again, all the things that were piling up here of what you as a working person had to deal with on a day-to-day basis, to then add on your feet while pregnant. I don’t know how you did it to be perfectly honest with you, but God bless –
Sherry Cothren: It was God. It was God. Let’s put it … Yeah, God [laughs].
Maximillian Alvarez: [Laughs] Okay. Geez, man. Like I said, I want us to be walking our way towards the strike. We’re going to eventually, ultimately have to pave over some stuff. We can’t cover that amount of time in just a short recording. But I did want to ask what it was like for you both to be, again, working in this industry. Your mom is working in this industry. You’re living in the Midwest at a moment of really critical change in the economy that you all were feeling in a very intense way in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt.
That, again, was something I wasn’t prepared for as a Southern Californian until I saw it in Michigan, until I saw Detroit with my own eyes for the first time, until I saw Flint for the first time. Because life still happens. Life still goes on. There’s still people who live beautiful, meaningful lives in these places. There are still families that live and grow and move on. It’s not as if the community is just gone, but it is like you see these hulking facilities that are just idle. You see the traces of the civilization that once was in Detroit that now there are still whole neighborhoods that look like a bomb just went off. They’re deserted. They’re gone. And then the more you learn about the rise and fall of the auto city, something in your heart hurts to hear that.
And so I wanted to ask what you all recall seeing and feeling in those decades, the ’80s, ’90s, when all that was happening, when Flint closed down. Sherry, what was that like for you as a worker? Jeremiah, when did you start picking up on this or did you see it happening anywhere?
I’m curious if you guys could speak to that because it’s, I think, a fundamental part of the story of the strike that we’re watching right now. Because it’s the threat. It’s always been the threat of those plant closures and moving operations to the non-union South or to other countries. That is a fundamental part of why the union has been on the back foot for so many years. Because it’s like if workers push too hard, if they demand too much, the bosses could always say, look, you guys want to be the next Flint? We’ll do that to you if you don’t take more concessions. And so you get these decades-long backslides. I wanted to ask if you could tell us a bit about what it was like to be in the middle of that.
Sherry Cothren: As far as if it affected our Ford Motor… Where I was at the time?
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Did it affect you guys, or were you watching what was happening in other states? When did it feel like something was changing in the industry, and what did that change look like?
Sherry Cothren: Well, for me, it started changing when they started outsourcing our work. We felt that that was them taking our jobs away from us. I forget what they were telling us as far as that goes, as far as the reason why they were doing it. And I know on their part, they were probably saving tons of money as opposed to paying us for it. That’s when I pretty much noticed that, when they decided to start doing that. I can’t really… Jer, maybe you can take over. I cannot think of something else.
Jeremiah Cothren: Well, I think I’ll just, maybe bouncing off of that, is that there was certainly a dramatic shift in outsourcing the work, whether it went down south maybe to Mexico or down south to Alabama where a lot of the work definitely shifted. And that was a drastic and noticeable shift. Whereas growing up, it’s always been the Rust Belt was heavily, even when I was growing up, the factories were there in Toledo, in Detroit, in Flint and things like that, and then they shifted. And so what that meant was you had a lot of people who migrated to Ohio, to Toledo, with hopes of having these jobs – Which again, talking about upward mobility. And then all of a sudden they’re announcing plant closures. And Mom, I think you had some really close friends who came on the tail end of that news when the Ford plant ultimately closed, right?
Sherry Cothren: They were from Jersey.
Jeremiah Cothren: Yeah, exactly. Right. And you could probably speak a little bit more on that. But before I pass it off to you, I just want to say a little bit about after high school, I moved to California to go to college. I did notice that there were a lot of people who really didn’t fully grasp or understand what it was like to be from a really heavy manufacturing town and industry. And I think that was probably the first time that I realized, oh, okay, this is something that’s unique. This is something that’s happening and that’s important in the Midwest.
But people don’t know. People don’t really fully understand. And why that’s important is because it has a huge impact on not just the local economy, but talking about global trade, and then we could speak further about what happens when these communities are not of the narrative, of the main narrative. What happens when their voice isn’t heard? What happens when there’s de-industrialization and there’s less economic development in some of these communities?
I’ve been around Ohio a lot, and you go to some of the downtowns that are completely gutted out. There’s not a lot of economic development. And so you have these blighted communities which are just horrible to look at because you want to think about a thriving community. But you have to also think about where did the families go? What happened to that money that could have been spent within that local community that’s now gone? Where did those families go?
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I think that’s such an important point, and it brings us full circle back to Toledo even, because I was literally interviewing a guy at the Toledo Jeep plant now who came over from Belvedere after they closed in Illinois. And he was like, I’m not the only one. But he described what you were just talking about, Jeremiah. He’s like, my family was there. To have to move to Toledo by myself and sleep in a relative’s basement on a mattress while I’m missing my kids. I’m missing my wife.
Further down in Lordstown, I remember interviewing folks at the iconic Lordstown plant in Ohio on the show. What was that, in 2018 when the layoffs were announced, 14,000 jobs were eliminated, white and blue collar. That was after GM had been turning huge profits. That was not the GM of 2008. And they had also gotten massive tax cuts from the government, and they still fired or they laid off all those people. And they never say they’re going to close the plant, they say we’re going to un-allocate it, so we’re just going to leave it sitting there because if we close it, that would maybe violate the contract. So they come up with all these ways of doing the same thing but calling it something else.
But I think you’re exactly right, Jeremiah. The human cost of that has been coming through so much in the stories that auto workers and folks have been sharing with us of how devastating it is on a personal level to have to uproot your life, to all those folks in Lordstown, like high school friends. Suddenly they’re all split up because the family has got to move to where the other jobs are, and they may not all be in the same place. But it’s like you drop a nuclear bomb on a community.
Sherry Cothren: That’s true.
Jeremiah Cothren: Exactly. And it’s important to understand that these stories have been going on for a very long time. You have families who are moving here and there for the jobs and you have plant closures, and it’s not like that disappeared. So even though people say the Rust Belt, it’s a bygone era, I have to say that we’re still very much there and we’re still very much very proud to do the work and to be a part of these close-knit communities. I want to highlight that these stories haven’t gone anywhere. The Rust Belt is still very much there and present, and these stories are important for folks who might not know what’s going on in the rest of the country.
And Mom, maybe you could explain a little bit about what happened when you found out the Ford plant was going to close. I think you were close to your retirement then or you had just put in your 30 years?
Sherry Cothren: Right. Yes, I was getting around to that. You want me to start to talk about that now? Okay.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Yeah. Sherry, please take us there. Like I said, we can’t cover the whole past five decades, but take us back to that moment. Because you retired in 2007. Is that right?
Sherry Cothren: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. So that’s another huge moment in history for this industry that is playing a big part in the strike today because this is when the auto industry was collapsing in on itself. The global economy was about to experience a massive shockwave that was going to cause countless families to lose their homes, lose their savings, all that. And this was also when the two-tier system was created. This was when more concessions were extracted from workers to keep these companies afloat. So take us back to that time, and then we’ll round out by getting your thoughts on the strike. But first, tell us about when you retired and the plant closing.
Sherry Cothren: Okay. Yes. I retired in 2007. Because I worked for 30 years, and I was very fortunate to get my full benefits. It was about a year maybe before the plant closed, maybe less than that. They called a meeting and told us that the plant was closing. And as Jer mentioned, there were people from all over that had come to our plant to get work because their plants had closed. We had made wonderful family friends who were from Newark. They uprooted because, again, our plant offered them this opportunity. And soon after they get there, oh my gosh, then the plant closes. They were so devastated. I felt really bad for them because they weren’t the only ones. They did have the choice to go to other plants. But again, as you all mentioned earlier, you have to uproot yourself. Either the wife or the husband, whomever, they have to go and leave the others behind until they can give them a place to stay.
I want to mention as well that before I… Well, okay, let me put it this way. It didn’t really affect us, the ones that had the 30 years, as far as we were pretty much established, I guess you could say that. So we didn’t have to move away. But we did have the opportunity because I was, oh gosh, I was only 50, right, Jer?
Jeremiah Cothren: Yeah. I think you were 50 [laughs]. Yeah.
Sherry Cothren: I’m trying to remember everything. But we got the 30 year, but we got a buyout. And once we got the buyout, then we weren’t trying to go to another plant because we would have had to go to maybe Cleveland, away from our homes and all that, which, again, we had established a life there in Toledo. But there were a lot of people that had to just take what they could get. I really felt bad for them. And they were really mad like, why did Ford tell us that? Oh my goodness. Because they really, really painted this beautiful picture for these people, but they probably knew they were going to close! I don’t know.
Maximillian Alvarez: So heartbreaking to hear. And again, I remember that time well. I remember the impact it had on my family and so many others. I get that it was a rough time for all of us. And what your fellow union members have told me over the years is we gave concessions to keep these companies afloat. We knew that we were in a financial crisis. We knew we had to tighten our belts like I think Chrysler did in the ’80s. It’s something that folks knew was always a possibility in moments of crisis like this. But out of that came this two-tier system. So folks hired after 2007, they didn’t get a pension. They did not get the benefit package that folks who were hired before that did.
Also, after that, we saw the explosion of temp workers in the plants. And this is a big part of what the UAW is fighting for now, is a shorter pathway to converting temporary workers into full-time employees. The union is fighting for the restoration of defined benefit pensions, to try to get those things back. Because what the companies – And Sherry, you tell me if I’m wrong here – But what I’ve heard from so many people and what I’ve read is that you all were promised that when things got better, when these companies were back in the black, they would repay the auto workers. They said, don’t worry. We got you.
Sherry Cothren: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: And then that’s what’s sticking with me, is because then a few years later, workers held up their end of the bargain. They gave those concessions. They worked their butts off. They made these companies profitable again. And then, like I said, we still got the GM layoffs. We still get plant closures, over 60 in the past two decades alone. And now these companies are making record profits, and workers are still fighting to get those benefits back.
Sherry Cothren: Yes. I’m so glad that they’re fighting so hard. I am so proud of my union brothers and sisters. I really am. And I just hope that… I’ll just say we get everything that they’re asking for, including us retirees. And that’s what you have to do. You just have to keep fighting.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I wanted to, maybe by way of rounding us out here, and Jeremiah, please, if you got any other thoughts, questions you want to throw in here, go for it because I can’t keep you guys for too long, and I appreciate so much you taking the time to chat with me about this. But I just wanted to get your thoughts on the strike that we’re witnessing now because even like I said, on the first season of this show, I got really obsessed with interviewing GM workers during those layoffs because I just felt so heartsick listening to their stories, and I was so mad. As someone whose own family lost so much in the recession, I was so mad hearing these stories of what workers had been through to then see and hear what people in Lordstown, people in Pontiac, people in Oshawa, Canada, what they were going through. Even now, here where I am in Baltimore, there’s the plant out here that got closed.
And so I remember interviewing so many different folks. And even that was in 2018, 2019, the way that those folks talked about the union at that time, the fire in their belly, their sense of what they were fighting for and what was possible. In just four years, it’s such a radical change.
I just wanted to ask, as someone who started working in the ’70s, and you’ve seen so much, what has it been like to watch this transformation of the union, this strike unfolding?
And also, as you said, it’s not just you’re watching from the sidelines. Fighting for retirees to get raises in their benefits, which, if I understand correctly, you all haven’t gotten in forever, even though the cost of living has continued to go up every single year. I’m just curious. What has it been like to watch all this unfold for you, and any final thoughts either of you want to share to folks out there listening?
Sherry Cothren: Well, for me, it’s been great to see it. Because again, like I said, there’s power in numbers. Shawn, yes, he’s a go-getter. He has got that fire. Everybody, it seems like they respect him and all that. I just hope that they get what they’re… They really need the pension. They need everything they’re asking for. And unfortunately, they may not get everything. But come on, they need to be paid more. They need to get their pensions. That’s so very important because I think that social security is great, but having that pension really helps. It really, really does. And I think we deserve it, the people before me, the people after me, and all that, and benefits and all that as well. So I just want to say to my fellow union members, you just keep going, keeping on, and stand up for what you believe in.
Jeremiah Cothren: That was beautiful, Mom. And I think I just want to add as well that when we’re looking at some of these CEOs who are making, I think the GM CEO made, what, $29 million in 2022 alone, and we have workers who are still fighting for increases in the base wages which were frozen in the 2007 negotiations. It’s just another case of pure exploitation. We have to continue this fight. It’s UAW. It’s across the board where workers are sticking up and saying, enough is enough.
And I will say that, and I also have to underscore that, this impacts so many families and the generation after as well. We’re all dealing with the high prices of inflation. We’re all still dealing with the vestige of the 2007 financial crisis. That’s actually when I graduated from college, and then trying to work –
Maximillian Alvarez: Same!
Jeremiah Cothren: …Work my way through that. I am super grateful that my mom was able to receive the full pension packages that she did before the plant closure. But the reality is that there are so many people who are not in that position, and it’s completely devastating. It’s hard enough. Exactly. And I think that it’s so important that we continue this fight because again, I think looking at the CEO profit and the profits that these companies are making, it’s [laughs]…
Sherry Cothren: It’s insane.
Jeremiah Cothren: It’s really outrageous. It’s decent to ask for a 40% increase in pay over the next four and a half years. I think the latest that had come in, I think it was either Ford or GM said they would offer at 23%. Nothing, of course, is finalized, but that’s half of what they’re… I think the third quarter company earnings for GM and Ford are going to be coming in the next few weeks, so we’re going to see what they’re earning. And it’s remarkable. It’s really striking how much people are pushing profits over people.
Maximillian Alvarez: I wholeheartedly agree, and I think that if there’s one lesson, there are many lessons we can learn, but I’m thinking especially in the context of everything we’re talking about, I feel like in the 21st century, we’re getting second chances at things that caused so much damage in the 20th century. It took union density going from 30% down to 20%, for wages to be stagnant over four decades even though we’ve been working longer and harder. We’ve been more productive than ever. We’ve been producing these untold profits that are all getting sucked up by such a small amount of people.
I feel like things had to get so bad for people to realize like, oh, shit, we need unions. We need to be banding together, like you were saying, Sherry. We need to be fighting and harnessing that strength in numbers to stop that exploitation, to stop that greed, to push back in the other direction and try to reclaim that ability to live well and live comfortable, dignified lives, to have safety on the job. We’re getting another chance at that. And I think what happens next depends on what we do now.
And Sherry, as a veteran in that movement, I just wanted to give you the final word, not just at UAW, but the Starbucks workers, the Amazon workers. Kaiser Healthcare nurses just launched the largest healthcare worker strike in the country’s history. Hotel workers in Vegas are getting ready to shut down the strip right now. Hotel workers in LA have been on strike for months. What does that all look like to you as someone who had a career in a union, but also saw that decline in membership, saw the society going in that direction? Did you have any final thoughts or words of encouragement to all the folks out there who are fighting for something different about the difference a union can make?
Sherry Cothren: Yes. Yes. I want to, as I said before, keep fighting, because the union is so invaluable. Oh my goodness. They can really… You get a really strong union behind you. You can do it. You can do it. Don’t let people say, oh no, you’re going to lose your job and all that. You got to remember, there’s so many people like yourself that want better conditions, better pay, and all that. So just remember, knowledge is working with the union and working together as well. Band together. Band together. That’s really important.