The United Auto Workers are striking against all of the Big Three automakers at once for the first time in the union’s history. The UAW is employing a novel “stand-up strike” strategy: rather than having over 140,000 auto workers hit the picket line at once, UAW members at three strategically targeted plants were called to strike first last Thursday, and union president Shawn Fain has announced that more plants will be called to strike by the end of this week. What are the key demands auto workers are striking over? What’s happening on the picket lines? How are active and retired members feeling about the union’s new, more militant strategy? And what role do we all have to play in ensuring they win the contract they deserve? On this worker solidarity livestream, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez will speak with Martha Grevatt, a retired auto worker and UAW Local 869 member, and Auston Gore, a veteran assembly line worker who is currently on strike at the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex.
Labor Notes, “When Auto Workers Stand Up, Here’s How to Stand with Them”
Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Welcome everyone to the Real News Network. My name is Maximilian Alvarez. I’m the Editor in Chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us for our latest worker solidarity live stream.
As I announced in our last live stream, we are committed to hosting these live discussions every other Wednesday, right here on the Real News YouTube channel, and we’ve got a doozy for y’all today. So please be sure to like this video and subscribe to our channel so you don’t miss any future streams.
It is a new day for the mighty UAW, as of midnight last Thursday, when contracts with the big three automakers officially expired. United Auto Workers are striking at all of the big three at once for the first time in the union’s history.
To be clear, the union’s contracts with the big three cover about 146,000 auto workers across the country. But rather than call all of those members to the picket line at once, the UAW leadership is employing a novel standup strike strategy, which entails calling workers at selected strategically targeted plants to hit the picket line, giving the union the ability to preserve its strike fund and to continually ramp up pressure on the companies by calling workers at more plants to strike if needed.
At 10:00 PM Eastern time on September 14th, UAW President Shawn Fain made the bombshell strike announcement over Facebook Live, and Fain officially called around 13,000 workers at three different plants to be the first to stand up and strike. Those plants include the General Motors Wentzville Assembly plant in Missouri, the Stellantis Jeep Assembly Complex in Toledo, Ohio, and workers in the final assembly and paint departments of Ford’s Michigan Assembly plant. And it looks like things are about to heat up even more.
Earlier this week, president Fain announced a new strike deadline of this Friday, September 22nd at noon. If significant progress is not made at the bargaining table between the UAW and the big three automakers, again, that is Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, then workers at more plants will be called upon to stand up and strike.
After decades of backsliding and concessionary bargaining, auto workers are fighting to take back what has been taken from them over the years. Among other key demands, the UAW is fighting for 36% pay raises, a shorter work week without reduction in pay, an end to wage and benefit tiers, the conversion of temporary workers to full-time employees, the reinstatement of cost of living pay raises and defined benefit pensions, which workers lost to keep the industry afloat during the great recession. They’re also fighting for the right to strike over plant closures and stronger protections for workers affected by those closures, as well as increases in benefits for retired UAW members.
Look, a lot is happening right now and we know folks have a lot of questions about what this strike is all about, what workers are fighting for, why the UAW is employing the standup strategy, what happens next, and what we can all do to help workers win this fight.
And we’re going to do our best to answer those questions with our amazing guests today. But if you want to dig deeper into this struggle, if you want to hear directly from more rank and file workers themselves, and if you want to really understand how we got here and what is at stake in this strike, not just for auto workers, but for the labor movement and the working class more broadly, I want to urge everyone watching and listening to go take advantage of the extensive reporting we at the Real News have been doing in collaboration with our colleagues and comrades at Labor Notes, and In These Times Magazine. Rather than competing with each other for clicks across our three outlets, we have been working together and working overtime to bring the people the kind of grassroots reporting they desperately need and to counteract the relentless corporate serving propaganda the mainstream media is pumping out daily.
We need your support to keep doing this work. So please follow Labor Notes, follow In These Times, follow The Real News, support the work that we’re doing, share our reporting. We’ve got lots more work to do and a world to win, and we cannot do it without you.
All right, let’s get to the good stuff. So I am truly honored to be joined on today’s worker solidarity live stream by the great Martha Grevatt, a retired auto worker in UAW Local 869 member. Martha is also on the steering committee of Unite All Workers for Democracy. And we are also joined by Auston Gore, a UAW local 12 member and an assembly line worker who is currently on strike at the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex. Martha, Auston, thank you so much for joining us today on the Real News Network. I really appreciate it.
Thank you for having us.
Yeah, thanks for bringing us on.
It is really, really great to see you both and I really appreciate your time, especially with everything going on right now. As I said, Auston is literally at one of the plants on strike, and I wanted to just kind of jump right into it and get things going by getting to first know a bit more about you both and your experience working in the auto industry. And I want to take this chance to sort of frame this strike for people watching from your perspective as both active and retired auto workers.
Auston, I want to start with you since, as I said, you’re literally on strike right now in Toledo, and then we’re going to toss it to Martha. Can you start by introducing yourself to the good Real News livestream audience? Tell us about how you came to work in the auto industry, what kind of work you do for a living, and what do you most want people to know about what this strike is really about?
So my name’s Auston Gore. I am currently from region 2B, local 12 in Toledo, Ohio, but I originally started in region 4, local 1268, Belvedere, Illinois. I started back in 2011 where I was a stock chaser and I would rush parts to the line to prevent any downtime. Now out here in Toledo, I assemble the Gladiator and we put in the seats and the flares, among other things.
The strike is important because it’s not just to benefit the members, it’s to benefit the working class as a whole. There’s a lot of key demands that the membership are demanding, and rightfully so. I don’t feel any of them are out of reach at all.
And we’re going to dig into those key demands in a couple minutes. But I guess while we’re on the topic, Auston, I wanted to also ask you, before we toss it to Martha, if you could just give us a bit of an update from Toledo. As I mentioned in the intro, y’all were one of the first three plants that were called by President Fain to stand up and strike first as of midnight last Thursday. So what’s the vibe been in Toledo? What’s it been like on the picket line? How are y’all holding up?
We’re on fire. The membership is so engaged, and it’s just amazing. We’ve got so many people that are volunteering their time to go to other gates. People want to be out there supporting one another during this time, and it’s amazing. It’s absolutely incredible. I’ve never seen the membership so engaged, honestly.
And so would you say just from, not speaking for the union or on behalf of the union, but just from your perspective, it feels like folks are really behind this strategy and are trusting the process of the standup strike?
Absolutely. Wholeheartedly. 100%.
Hell, yeah. All right. Well, like I said, we’re going to dig into that more in the next couple rounds. But Martha, I wanted to bring you in here. For folks who want a great podcast to listen to, I highly recommend you go check out an interview that I got to do with Martha on my podcast Working People, where she and I spoke a bit about her time working in the auto industry, and I would really encourage folks to check that out. But for anyone who hasn’t, Martha, I wanted to ask if yeah, you could introduce yourself to the livestream viewers. Tell us a bit about your backstory, how you came to work in the industry, what kind of work you did before retiring, and what you most want people to know about where this strike came from and what this is all about.
Hi. Again, my name is Martha Grevatt. I’ve been a factory worker all of my working life, going back to the ’70s. In 1983, I started an apprenticeship as a tool and dye maker. What we do, we build and repair stamping dyes. They’re a little bit like a mold, but they work on sheet metal. And in the auto industry, the dyes stamp, they’re in a machine called a punch press, and they stamp out doors and roofs and hoods and lift gates and tailgates and all the parts that go on the body of the car.
So I did this apprenticeship, but it was in a non-union place. The pay was terrible. So after I finished my apprenticeship and got my certificate from the State of Ohio, I was fortunately hired at the Twinsburg, Ohio stamping plant of Chrysler in 1987, and I became a member of Local 122, and I worked there as a skilled trades person until Chrysler closed our plant during the bankruptcy in 2010. In fact, I was one of the last five tool and die makers to be laid off from that plant.
And all during that time, I was very active in my union, Local 122. I served on standing committees, I went to union meetings. I was trustee of the local for a period of time after… It was a rotten deal when they closed our plant Twinsburg. And my heart goes out to Auston and everyone at Belvedere, because we went through it and there was no other plant of the corporation at that time nearby in our area for us to transfer to. And nearly all of us had to relocate, some to Toledo and some to, most to Michigan and some to Indiana. And it was a hard thing to go through. And they didn’t give us any notice. When they asked us to agree to concessions during the bankruptcy, they said, “Vote yes, it’ll keep your plant open.”
And then one day later, in the court documents, they said they’re going to close our plant. So we went through all that. I followed my job to Warren Stamping Plant, which is in Warren, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I was active in that local, also local 869, active, co-chaired the Civil Rights Committee, was a trustee, served on that executive board as well.
I retired in 2019 and moved back to my hometown, Cleveland, Ohio, which is where I live now. So I live in region 2B, but my union is in region 1. And I worked very hard on the campaign to finally turn our union around to win the right to elect our international executive board directly. And then I worked on the Members United campaign that ultimately elected Shawn Fain as our international president, and new officers that were union reformers. But beyond that, they wanted to go back and make us a fighting union again, which is how we started out when we were founded in 1935 and when we led the sit down strike wave in 1937.
So it’s great to be here. And my plant is not on strike, and if it was, I would not be on strike. But I did go to Toledo and walk the picket line and I will do so again. And I will, I’m glad to picket. And I hope any retirees watching this will find time to go to the picket line, because this strike is for all of us, retirees and active workers.
Well, and just to pick up on that real quick, Martha, I wanted to ask, because people watching this, I mean, they’re getting it from all sides in the corporate media. We’re just hearing all the jazzy standards, right? “Oh, this is going to hurt the economy. Auto workers are asking for too much,” yada, yada, yada. So for people who are hearing all that crap, I just wanted to ask, how would you frame this strike for them? What is this struggle really about?
Well, I think Shawn Fain has said it well, that when they talk about wrecking the economy, they mean wreck the economy for the billionaires, for the rich. Because what we’re asking for is a bigger share of the wealth that we create. We create all the wealth. We build all the cars. We do all the work, all of it. The executives and the bosses are, frankly, they’re superfluous. But we want a bigger share. And if we get a bigger share, then they get a smaller share. Their profits are impacted by whatever we can win through striking and at the bargaining table.
So they want the public to be on their side and turn against the union, but it’s not working. I’m sure Auston can testify to all the solidarity from the community. When I was there, it was honking nonstop. There was a Gallup poll that showed three out of four people were sympathetic to the strike because poor and working people know that we’re fighting to raise the bar for everybody. And if we raise our standard of living, then that will help everyone else.
Hell, yeah. And I mean, when we say the UAW is fighting to raise the bar for everyone else, I think it’s important to emphasize for people that what we’re talking about there is stopping the bar from continually being lowered. I mean, the auto industry is a perfect example of what Bernie Sanders famously called a race to the bottom. You heard it in that first round from Martha and Auston.
Even just in their own bios, they’re talking, they both experienced plant closures, right? We know that the auto industry has been offshoring jobs closing down plants, relocating to Mexico and beyond. Workers for decades have been put on the back foot taking concession after concession in each new round of bargaining, because employers have always had that threat of closing shop, dropping an economic nuke on communities if workers don’t take more concessions.
And that’s kind of been the story for workers in the auto industry, is more layoffs have happened, more plants have closed in recent decades. Wages have gone down in fact, while working people in general have seen their wages stagnate for the past 40 years. We all know that in 2008, the auto industry was at risk of total collapse, and the taxpayers bailed two of the big three automakers out to the tune of 80 billion dollars. And workers bailed the auto industry out as well by opening up their contracts and giving concessions to keep these companies afloat.
That’s how they lost cost of living adjustments. That’s how they lost defined benefit pensions. That’s where we saw the explosion of lower tier job titles and temp workers and so on and so forth. We have been on the backslide. And so I wanted to sort of take that historical perspective for a second, and ask if y’all could say more about how you have seen firsthand the industry and the union change over the course of your careers.
So Auston, I’m going to toss it back to you, and then Martha, we’ll go to you.
Oh, I think you’re still on mute. Okay. Well, Martha, if you-
I’m so sorry. Can you hear me?
Yep, you’re good, brother. Go for it.
Sorry about that. What was the question?
So yeah, if you could just give us kind of a deeper historical perspective about how you have seen the industry and the union itself change over the time that you’ve been working in the auto industry.
Absolutely. I would love to start with Shawn Fain. President Shawn Fain has absolutely been a breath of fresh air for our union as a whole. He has this strong persona of an activist, an actual activist, a union activist, compared to the previous leadership that we’ve had. I feel like he’s lit a fire under the memberships’ bottoms to get us fired up in wanting to fight for these demands and whatnot.
And Auston, I was wondering if you could say a bit more about what it’s like, just give people a sense of what it’s like to be a worker in the auto industry post 2008. I mean, because as we said, this seems to be the real critical moment when the explosion of tiers and temp workers, the speed ups, continued layoffs and plant closures. And I mean, Shawn Fain himself, as you both have mentioned, is the product of a significant reform movement that happened within the union itself, which was rife with corruption.
In fact, multiple union leaders have now been put in prison after a FBI investigation. And in fact, it was a federal consent decree that was reached between the Department of Justice and the UAW that gave UAW members the chance to directly, to vote on the referendum that would give y’all a more, a one member, one vote system that you passed. And then that system allowed y’all to elect Shawn Fain as your union president. So anyway, just to kind of back up for a second, I just wanted to ask if you could kind of give people a sense of what the industry has looked like in the post 2008 era.
I think Martha said it great when she said that the membership does the work, and that’s where we’re at. We pour our time into this. We break our bodies for this industry. It’s not the normal nine to five. There are oftentimes you don’t know how late you’re going to be working because they can force that overtime upon you. There’s times where you’re going to miss things with your family.
It’s supposed to be a rewarding job, but oftentimes our members can’t afford the vehicles that they’re building. I can’t afford the vehicles that I’m building. I am one of those members that works paycheck to paycheck. And for the amount of work that I put in and how hard I work for this company, I feel like we deserve a lot of the things that we’re asking for, the fair wage, 40%. We’re asking for shorter work weeks and the demand to strike during, for plant closures.
That’s a huge one for me because I’ve experienced it. Martha’s experienced it. It’s not easy. It is extremely stressful. It’s extremely tiring and taxing on your families and your loved ones. A lot of times you’re leaving them behind. I can’t tell you how many members I know that are out here, that have transferred from Belvedere, who have left their loved ones behind, who have left their kids behind and aren’t able to just pick them up and have them come out here. They have to go back and travel to see them.
That’s the industry that we work for. And this is a company that… I loved my job. I’ll say it a million times, I love my job, but I don’t like who I work for because this is what they do to the average worker that works for these companies. And the tier system and the temps, they abuse these people, and they’re human beings. And it’s people that I work shoulder to shoulder with that are doing the exact same work I’m doing, but they’re not getting the same amount of money that I’m making. And that’s horribly wrong. It’s evil. It really is evil.
Yeah. I mean, I think that’s powerfully and perfectly put. And I’m speaking as a former temp worker myself in warehouses, in factories in Southern California. In the wake of the Great Recession in 2011, 2012, I was a temp back home in SoCal working at these different factories and warehouses. And I saw how our bosses were employing more and more of these temps, people like myself who could be fired at the drop of a hat, who were making half the amount as the guy or gal working next to me, which makes you kind of resent your fellow worker instead of resenting your boss who’s the one who created these different tiers of employment.
You have functionally no rights in the workplace. You have no time off. Your mom could be in the hospital and you could say, “I need a day off.” And they’ll say, “Fine, you don’t have a job, so don’t come back tomorrow.” That’s what it’s like. That’s what it was like for me working as a temp. And sadly, it’s what I’ve heard from so many temp workers in and outside of the auto industry.
And Martha, I wanted to ask you the same question about, over the course of your career and now even as a retiree, I mean you have such a wealth of knowledge and experience. I was wondering if you could kind of talk us through from your vantage point, how you have seen the auto industry change and how you have seen the union itself change over the course of your career.
Well, as I mentioned, when I hired at Chrysler in 1987, there were not many of us who could say that they could not afford the vehicles that they built. And everyone who has to go to work every day and work their buns off building automobiles should at a minimum be able to afford the product they build. But now, what Auston said that he can’t afford it, there’s tens of thousands, maybe a majority now of auto workers who cannot afford to buy the product they build. We have seen our standard of living fall while their profits rise. And it’s not just a coincidence. There’s a correlation, because the less they pay us, the more they keep for themselves.
At one point, everybody made top pay after 90 days. By the time I hired in, it took 18 months. And then at some point in the 1990s, they increased it to three years, but everyone still got to top pay. In 2007, they brought in the tiered pay structure where anyone hired after October, 2007 made less money, received inferior health insurance and other benefits, did not get a pension when they retired and did not get health insurance when they retired. That was for production workers. And in 2011, that same tiered structure was expanded to include all skilled trades people.
So we’ve been doing equal work for unequal pay since 2007. And in 2015, they introduced the wage progression, which meant that everyone did get the same pay, but it took these second tier workers hired in October, 2007 or later, it took them eight years to get to top pay. But in fact, it took longer because they had expanded what I call the third tier, the tier of temporary workers, or sometimes they’re called temporary part-time or supplementals.
They’ve changed the name, but they’re greatly disadvantaged. It’s like they’re on probation the whole time, for years. And they can be fired for almost anything. And probably out of a contract that’s hundreds of pages, there’s less than 10 pages that offer them any kind of protection. And they’re paid less. They’re not even in the 401K that second tier workers are in. Their benefits are worse. They’re under a stricter attendance policy.
The temporary workers really get messed over by this company, and it could take years for them to become permanent. And then after they’re permanent, they don’t get credit for time served. It still takes eight years for them to get to top pay, and they still don’t get a pension when they retire. They still don’t get health insurance when they retire. So it’s a real disincentive for them to retire.
And this situation has just gotten worse, from what I hired in ’87 to when they brought it in 2007 to now. And even those of us who were high seniority, we’ve only gotten, it’s been said 6% in pay raises since ’07, basically. And we’re all falling behind. And this strike is necessary because if we don’t take on these companies, we’re going to keep falling behind.
And as far as how the union’s changed, for all my time as a working auto worker, the leadership just continued to cave in to the company demands and give more concessions, and then things would get better in one area, but not better in another. And they kind of saw themselves as being partners of a corporation.
We’re not partners, we’re not family. Someone in Toledo had a T-shirt, “Management is not your friend.” Our relationship is adversarial. The more they make, the less we make and vice versa. And finally, our union is realizing that crucial fact, and we’re fighting for what’s ours.
Hell, yeah. And again, if folks want to learn more about the incredible story, which is a whole other live stream unto itself, about the reform movement within the union. I promise you it’s a very, very inspiring and incredible story which we’ve covered here at the Real News Network, along with our colleagues and comrades at In These Times and Labor Notes.
You can go back… The referendum, the one member one vote referendum that was passed was passed in the end of 2021, which again set the stage for the UAW to have its first democratic elections where workers and retirees directly elected their union leadership as opposed to the previous, less democratic system. There was a more delegate and appointed sort of system. But that set the stage for workers to vote Shawn Fain in. They also challenged other seats backed by the Unite All Workers for Democracy Reform Caucus, similar to Teamsters For a Democratic Union within the Teamsters Union.
We don’t have as much time to go into that now, but I just wanted to make sure folks understood that while auto workers are fighting off the bosses, they have also been fighting to retake their union and turn it, as Martha so aptly put it, back into a fighting organization that represents the rank and file, which is how we got to where we are today.
Now I want to, with the time that we have left, first say, “Hey,” to Martha’s cat. And second, I wanted to drill down on some of the key demands and issues that are at stake in this struggle. We’ve mentioned a number of them so far, right? The double digit wage increases and the tiered employment system, converting temp workers into full-time employees on a short timeline. Restoration of cost of living adjustments, which again, workers lost during the great recession. And that would’ve come in very handy in recent years when working people across the board have been getting absolutely pummeled by inflation.
So we’ve got a lot of issues on the table. We also have the UAW fighting to ensure that the transition to EVs and electric vehicles is not used as an excuse for the automakers to further undercut these jobs, pay workers less, hire fewer of them, give them fewer protections on the job, so on and so forth. So there’s a lot here, but I want to kind of ask Auston and Martha if there were particular issues that you wanted to highlight, including ones that maybe haven’t gotten as much attention in the mainstream coverage. Two that I’m thinking of that relate directly to both of y’all is the right to strike over plant closures, and protections for workers who are impacted by those plant closures as both of you have been.
And also the retiree benefits. Retirees haven’t gotten increases in their benefits in years, and many of them are living on just these meager kind of allowances. And the union is fighting for them too, because these are workers who have given the best years of their lives to this industry to make those cars and to make those profits, and they are being left out to dry by those same automakers, in their older years. So Auston, I want to toss it to you and ask, if you are willing, if you could actually talk a bit more about what it was like for you and your coworkers to go through the plant closure at Belvedere, and if you could talk a bit more about that or other key issues and demands at stake in the struggle that you really want to highlight for people watching.
Absolutely. The rug was completely pulled from under us. We had a very profitable plant in Belvedere, and it’s idled. It’s not closed, but we had a very profitable plant out there. We had our own stamping department. We had the best attendance company-wide. We had multiple J.D. Power Awards. And it was a huge surprise to a lot of people. And the membership out there was just tossed all over, not just to Toledo, but there were some that went to Warren, Michigan, some went to PDC plants in Florida, in New York and California. We were all over, spread out sporadically throughout the country.
And it’s extremely heartbreaking, because those are people that I spent the last 12 years of my career with, because… You know, I love them. You grow to love these people because you’re spending so much time with them and you have so many commonalities. And then to see them just go all over the country, it’s heartbreaking. It’s painful.
And your own experience with your family. I moved out here in Toledo in April. I was away from my family for four months. I was living with my aunt an hour away in her unfinished basement on an air mattress. So every day I would drive an hour to work and an hour back to work. And there were many nights. It was just very sad, depressing, and lonely. And I had to keep telling myself, “Things are going to get better. I’m going to get my family out here.”
And eventually I got them out here. And it’s amazing having them here, but I still can’t help but have a little bit of hatred towards the company who did this to me. Not just to me, but to my fellow brothers and sisters who have moved all over the country. And if you have never experienced something like this, then you won’t fully understand. There are a lot of people out here in Toledo who are arms wide open and accepting of us. And then there are other people who have a little bit of animosity because we’re bringing our seniority in and we have a little bit more seniority than them. And there’s a lot of temps that were supposed to be flipped. And it affects our relationship with them too, because those temps are promised to be flipped to full time, but they’re under the assumption that it’s our fault for coming in that they’re now not able to be flipped.
So this company has created such a huge divide, and has just ruined us. And one of the things that infuriates me is back home in Belvedere, that plant is still idled. Like I said, they’re being offered, they’ve been offered incentives, tax incentives, so they’ve transferred employees all over the country. They’ve offered us a voluntary termination package. They’ve offered so many retirement packages. If they decide to keep Belvedere open, they’re going to be able to hire brand new people at a fraction of the cost and they won’t have to pay taxes on them. And I think that’s just criminal. You’ve gotten all of these tax incentives from the state to be able to keep this plant open and provide us with a product out there. And they’re not taking it right now. They’re using Belvedere as a bargaining chip.
And you’re toying with people’s lives and their families. There are some people who aren’t just able to pick up and leave because they have ill parents that they’re taking care of back in Belvedere, so they don’t have that option to just up and move. Some of them are established with doctors and specialists out there. It makes it difficult for them to just move and get established elsewhere. I’m still, after being here since April, I’m still trying to get my kids a primary doctor and get myself in with my specialists and whatnot. It’s not an easy transition. It’s not an easy move, but this is what the company puts their employees through, the very employees that they claim is their family.
And there’s posters all over inside the plant saying that we’re a family. We’re a family. No, my family would never do this to me. I would never do this to my family. Families don’t do that to one another. The family that I trust and believe are at that table negotiating for me to have a fair slice. They’re offering us, trying to make us whole. That’s the family I know. Those are my brothers and sisters. They’re the only family I know in this game. The company, they’re not family. No. You pay me to do a service and I do that service for you well. And I break my body. I spend my time day in and day out. All of us do. We offer up our time. We give away time with our families to be there to line your pockets, to build your profits up. And this is how you repay your family. So no, that’s not my family. My family is at that table negotiating a fair contract for my brothers and sisters and I.
Hell, yeah. Man, that was beautifully and powerfully put. I got chills when I-
Man. I’m sorry.
No, man. Preach brother. Because another thing I want to impress upon people, again, if we’re talking about family and how these companies treat their family, this isn’t just Belvedere. 65 plants have been closed across the big three in the 21st century alone, right? Again, as I said, in 2007, 2008, when GM and Chrysler were on the verge of bankruptcy and got bailed out by the taxpayers and got bailed out by auto workers who gave concessions to keep those companies afloat, workers were explicitly promised that they would get those concessions back when these companies were back in the black, when they were making a profit again, and workers did their part. They made those concessions and they turned those companies profitable again.
And then those companies also got massive windfall profits from major tax cuts in 2018. And how did they repay workers after all that? By shuttering or unallocating plants like Lordstown in Ohio, where I interviewed workers back in 2018 who returned from Thanksgiving break, the Monday after Thanksgiving, to learn that GM after turning major profits, was eliminating 14,000 jobs and idling plants like Lordstown. They have been giving executives massive pay raises, shareholder dividends, stock buybacks, all while workers have been getting squeezed and more plants have been getting shuttered or idled.
This cannot keep going on. As Auston described, it is devastating for communities. Imagine those 65 communities in the 21st century alone that have been decimated by these kinds of closures, those workforces that have been scattered to the winds, the marriages that have been strained or if not, broken, because one worker has to go to another state and move away from their family. I mean, these are the real human stakes of what we’re talking about here.
Now, Auston’s got me all fired up, but before I go on too long, Martha, I wanted to ask you the same question. Specifically, if you could talk a bit about the retiree benefits side of this and why that is such an important part of this struggle, but also any other key issues that you think haven’t been covered or understood enough in the coverage of the strike so far?
Well, it’s really been a key issue for the working class movement from the start, that you don’t have to work and work and work until the very day that you die, that you can have an income when you retire. And pensions have long been a staple of union contracts, and they have legally been understood to be deferred wages. So we actually worked for our pensions while we were in the plants. And the understanding is that you can’t just take our pensions away because they are wages that we worked for, but that were deferred.
And every worker should be able to retire at a reasonably young age when they are still well enough to enjoy the rest of their lives. I mean, to me, that’s a basic right, a basic principle. I think it’s even enshrined in the UN charter on human rights. I’d have to look it up. But for workers to be able to afford to retire, they need a pension that keeps up with inflation.
Retirees of Ford General Motors and what’s now Stellantis have not seen an increase in their pensions, which are negotiated at contract time with everything else, wages, benefits, vacation, et cetera, since 2003. That’s 20 years. I mean, how much have prices gone up in 20 years? But what’s even worse than that is that anyone hired after 2007 does not even get a defined benefit pension.
And then there’s the question of health insurance. In 2007, that’s when they started this VEBA, which stands for Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, so that the companies would put in a one-time lump sum that would be invested and pay for our health insurance. If that fund goes bankrupt, none of us retirees have health insurance. If it doesn’t perform well, then they start to cut different things from our health insurance. During the bankruptcy they took dental and vision care away from the retirees, and we worked for our benefits as much as we worked for our pension.
So this is an important fight to bring us back to a place where anyone can retire from these auto companies and collect a pension, and that our pensions keep up with inflation. And it seems so basic that you have to ask, why has this been undermined? But from the standpoint of the wealthy, of the corporations, they don’t want to pay one more penny than they have to to any worker who’s no longer working and no longer producing value for these corporations.
And that’s why it’s so hard to win back pensions for everybody and to win an increase in pensions. It’s even harder to win that than to win a substantial wage increase, which goes to workers who are still producing value. But everybody wants to retire at some point. Whether you work till you’re 55 or to 75, you want to have that right to stop working when you’re ready. And so we’re fighting this fight for all workers to have the right to retire with dignity and with economic security.
Man, and the point you made, I mean, you both made just so many necessary and incredible points, but one that I just really want to underline that Martha just said is, this is money that workers have already earned. These are benefits that workers are already owed. These are the companies that are trying to renege on their responsibility to take care of workers who have given the best years of their lives to make those cars and to make those profits. And that is inexcusable. That is unconscionable, in my opinion.
And it also is a necessary reframing of the question, Martha, because I think this is also the case when we’re talking about the demands for a shorter work week, right? I’ve been seeing mainstream pundits from Jim Cramer to everyone on CNN and MSNBC crapping their pants at the suggestion that auto workers should have a 32-hour work week without a reduction in pace. So they should get 32 hours of work, but paid as if they work 40. And this is breaking people’s brains. They’re saying, “How could you possibly expect to get paid for work that you’re not doing?”
Well, what I would ask those very same pundits is, how can we possibly expect workers to keep doing so much work, working 50, 60, 70 hours, while still getting paid as if they’re only working 40 or less? Because that’s the situation that we’re actually in. The standard of living that was set in decades past for a 40-hour work week made at a good union wage, those standards have been bottomed out, as we’ve discussed over the past 45 minutes. And so that’s how you end up with workers who are working 10, 11, 12 hour days, six or seven days a week, not seeing their families, and yet they still can’t afford to buy the goddamn cars that they’re making, right?
So we have workers who are working way longer, but getting paid way less. Why are we not as outraged about that as the suggestion that workers have a 32-hour work week without a reduction in pay? And that’s not even mentioning the more egregious fact that a CEO of GM, Mary Barra, and her ilk amongst the big three, is making $29 million a year. So she’s getting paid for work that she’s not doing. There’s no way that the work that Mary Barra does is worth $29 million. I’m sorry. There’s just no human way that’s possible. You get that money from extracting and exploiting your workers.
So again, I could go on for, you guys got me all fired up, and I’m so, so grateful to you for giving me as much of your time and for sharing your perspective with our incredible live stream viewers and listeners. And I want to be respectful of your time. So I want us to kind of hit the final round here in a sort of shorter turn around the table to just ask, for folks out there watching and listening, what happens next? What can people out there do to help and stand in solidarity with y’all and your fellow union brothers and sisters? And do you have any final words for people watching and listening about why it is so important that we all get out there and support y’all?
So Auston, let’s start with you and then Martha, we’ll round out with you.
I think the public needs to, they need to understand that this is not just to benefit us. When unions do good, the middle class does good. Support our picket, our picket line, support us, drive by, honk your horns. It fires us up. We all get geeked over it, and we’re throwing our signs up even higher. Drive by and just see if we need anything. A lot of people have gone by, there’s been so much local support coming out today. We were brought brisket. Somebody had a crock pot in the back of their truck and brought us out brisket and chips. We’ve been given so many cases of water and food and whatnot. Continue the support, because it’s not just to benefit us, it’s to benefit the middle class as a whole.
And just to piggyback off of what you were saying about the 32-hour work week, it’s been normalized way too long, that a 40-hour work week. Why has that just been so normalized? Other countries do this 32-hour, 30-hour work week. If other countries can benefit from it and other automakers in other countries can benefit from it, then yeah, so can we. It would benefit in so many ways. We would see our loved ones and our families more often. We would have a life, our morale would be boosted, our mental state would be better.
In the long run, it does benefit the worker, but it also benefits the company. It comes back to the company because then there’s going to be more people who are coming to work on time and want to be there, because they’re going to have to make their money, of course. But a 42-hour or a 40 work week, it’s been normalized for far too long. And the public, I really hope that we continue to get that public support and know that this comes back on the middle class and the working class as a whole.
Martha, what about you? Any final words on what happens next and what people can do to show support and why they should show support?
Yeah, I just want to say a little more about the shorter work week, because workers have been fighting for shorter hours for over two centuries. Once upon a time, seven 12 was a standard work week, and then once upon a time, six days, 10 hours was a standard workweek. And we’ve been fighting for reduction of hours without loss of income for decades and decades.
And now it’s time to shorten the workweek again. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, which even that doesn’t stop companies from making more than 40 hours mandatory, but it makes them pay time and a half after 40 hours. Our productivity has risen exponentially since then. It is time for us to see the benefits in the form of shorter hours.
Now, getting back to your question, yes, be in solidarity with us. Stop by the line, walk the picket line with us, bring us food, water, firewood. Maybe they want things to read. I don’t know. We always think of food, water, and firewood. Ask them what they need. And if you’re in an organization, a union or a church, pass a resolution of solidarity. Solidarity messages are coming in from all over the world, from Brazil and Mexico, from Canada, and from closer to home the Detroit City Council, the Detroit Firefighters Association, the Michigan State, AFLCIO, national unions, communication workers. Unions of every kind, representing every kind of worker have called upon their members to support the strike.
And don’t believe the hype. The media is called the corporate media for a reason. I’m not including Real News here, but given the company point of view prominence, when the company says, “Oh, the prices of cars will go up, oh, it’s going to hurt the economy. Oh, the supplier plants are being hurt, workers are being laid off. Oh, and oh. And oh, we can’t afford what they’re asking, boo hoo hoo.” Don’t believe the hype. Find out what the workers are saying. Find out what the union’s saying and realize that we’re fighting for our class. We’re fighting for humanity.
And oh, the one other thing on the shorter work week, these companies are global companies. And in Germany, workers at Ford Plants and Stellantis plants only work 35 hours. So we can work fewer hours too. It’s not utopian, it’s not way out in left field. It’s long overdue.
So get behind us in this fight because you might be next. Either your union might be out, or if you don’t have a union, you might be striking for union recognition. You might be fighting some nasty company like Starbucks or Amazon or Trader Joe’s. We’re all in this together, so it’s time to fight back.
Hell, yeah. So that is Martha Grevatt, a retired auto worker in UAW Local 869 member. Martha is also on the steering committee for Unite All Workers for Democracy. And we’ve also been joined by Auston Gore, a UAW, local 12 member and assembly line worker who is currently on strike at the Stellantis, Toledo assembly Complex. Martha, Auston, thank you both so much for joining us today on The Real News Network. I really appreciate it. And we’re sending all of our love and solidarity to you and your union siblings.
Thank you so much.
Thanks everyone for watching.
For everyone watching, this is Maximilian Alvarez. Before you go, please head on over to the realnews.com/support. Become a sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing y’all important coverage and conversations just like this. Go out there. If you are near a picket line, go support workers on strike. If you are not near a picket line, there are plenty of other ways that you can vocalize your support. Let these companies know that you stand with the workers, demand that mainstream media bring more workers on and do more honest coverage. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something here, and we all need to do something.
So thank you for watching. Thank you for caring. Take care of yourselves, take care of each other. Solidarity forever.
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