The first 24 hours of the UAW strike

Posted September 20, 2023

by Wendy Thompson

Just two hours before the old contract ran out, UAW president Shawn Fain revealed which of the Big Three plants would be struck, one from each company.  Like other aspects of contract talks, this was a departure from the norm of concentrating on getting an agreement from one corporation before moving on to the others. But in the months leading up to the September 14h midnight deadline, the UAW pointed to how each of the Big Three have disregard for their work force.

The first three plants chosen are: Ford’s Michigan Assembly in Metro Detroit, with 3,300 workers, producing the Bronco and Wrangler pickups; Stellantis’s Toledo Assembly in Ohio with a work force of 4,174. producing the Jeep; and GM’s Wentzville Assembly, near St. Louis, where 4,114 workers assemble a number of midsize trucks and full-size vans.

As a Detroiter, I headed to the Michigan Assembly plant where I had previously leafleted around the One Member, One Vote campaign for top officers and then for the victorious slate I’d supported in the subsequent election. The enormous plant is directly across from the UAW Local 900. By the time I arrived the local’s parking lot was full, and I had to park next door.

Management had sent workers home at 11PM so many cars were leaving the company lots, honking as they pulled out. Some left, heard about the crowd at the local on the news, and drove back. As the crowd grew, honking continued all along Michigan Avenue, a major highway with a median. Strikers and supporters stood on the median and in front of the local, chanting and greeting each other. Metro Detroit DSA turned out and added to the crowd. A number of the national UAW leaders, including President Fain and Region 1 director, LaShawn English, were on hand. By the time I left, pickets were up at the facility’s many gates.

The media presence was outstanding. I sent a picture of the crowd to my friends in France; they responded that they’d already seen it on the news!

The following day, the UAW-community rally in downtown Detroit was a sea of red shirts. The crowd of a couple thousand was composed of autoworkers from various Detroit area plants – including a busload from a Kentucky Ford plant — and their allies. It too was exhilarating.

First up on the speakers list was U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who emphasized the union’s demand for economic and social justice in the negotiations. This fight was not just for the UAW members and their immediate families but spoke to the needs of the U.S. working class. He stated:

“The fight you are waging here is not just about decent wages and working conditions and pensions in the automobile industry. It is a fight to take on corporate greed and to tell the people on top, this country belongs to all of us, not just a few.”

Held in front of the Ford-UAW joint training center and overlooking the Detroit River, the rally then heard from the three UAW vice presidents who reported on their team’s negotiations. Despite the failure of the Big Three to bring an acceptable offer to the table, they said that within the last few days the companies had finally begun serious negotiations.  Even though still far from meeting the UAW demands, the companies were at least beginning to respond. Each vice president pledged to continue negotiating until a fair offer has been reached and responded to the crowd’s chants.

Given that the UAW went through a contested campaign for top officers – the first since 1947 when Walter Reuther consolidated his caucus – it was important to see that the officers from different slates were united. In fact, they were reinforcing each other’s message.

Winding up the rally was President Fain, who encouraged the majority not currently on strike to continue carrying out strike preparations. Although Fain did not confirm this, some members were reporting that plant managers (suspecting that their plant would be on strike), were moving extra parts to facilities mistakenly anticipating they were a target only to discover their mistake when Fain announced the actual targeted plants to strike first.

Fain made clear that the strategy to get a good tentative agreement meant expanding the number of plants striking if negotiations stall. In working without a contract, members have the advantage of being able to strike at any moment. This places maximum pressure on the companies who don’t know where the next action might take place. Lengthening and expanding the strike at a time when the Detroit Three fear losing market share is a powerful weapon that could break corporate intransigence over ending tiers.

As the rally came to a close, members and supporters marched several blocks down the street past the GM headquarters to where Blue Cross, Blue Shield workers, also UAW members, were striking. Speaking at the rally Margaret Mock, the union’s secretary-treasurer, pointed out that it took Blue Cross workers 22 years to get to top pay – not long before they were ready to retire!

Conveniently enough, the rally was just steps away from where the auto show would open the following day. Police had cordoned off nearby streets for the pre-auto show gala fundraiser taking place as the rally ended. The march passed well-dressed, well-heeled couples strolling down the street toward their party. Marchers chanted “No justice, no wheels,” “Record profits, record contract.” Circling around the U-shaped entrance allowed us to see just how large our forces were in a sea of red.

When the good-natured but decidedly militant marchers reached the Blue Cross, Blue Shield picket line, we mingled with the strikers. After a few minutes we marched back and dispersed.

Throughout the afternoon the media interviewed autoworkers about their particular stories. Several recounted how it took them six years in order to be hired permanently. The UAW banner summed up the event: “STAND UP for our communities, against corporate greed.”

Wendy Thompson is a retired autoworker. During her 33 year career, she was education director, chair and president of UAW Local 235 and put out a rank-and-file newsletter Shifting Gears at her auto plant.


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