The Promise and the Limits of the UAW Deals : Consider This from NPR The United Auto Workers secured its biggest victory in decades in deals with the Big 3 car companies after weeks of strikes.

While the union won a lot of concessions for workers: big pay raises, cost of living adjustments tied to inflation and increased retirement contributions, some workers are focused on what the new contracts are missing.

NPR Labor and Workplace Correspondent Andrea Hsu reports on what the historic contracts include and what they don't. Host Ari Shapiro speaks with NPR business reporter Camila Domonoske about how the UAW is looking to build on its gains.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org

The Promise and the Limits of the UAW Deals

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the president of the United Auto Workers talks about the deals he hammered out with the Big Three auto companies after weeks of strikes, he's talking about more than just a contract.

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SHAWN FAIN: The autoworkers at Ford just won a major battle in the fight for a better world.

SHAPIRO: But Shawn Fain's vision of an epic fight for the American dream faces a test. Union members still have to vote to approve the deals, and they aren't all as enthusiastic as he is.

JERRY COLEMAN: I'm definitely a no. If I could vote no 10 times, I would.

SHAPIRO: That's Jerry Coleman. He works at the Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, installing soundproofing foam. He doesn't trust that the company will follow through on its promises. The contract won a lot for workers - big pay raises, cost-of-living adjustments tied to inflation, increased retirement contributions. But Coleman is focused on what's missing, like retiree health benefits.

COLEMAN: We end up breaking down our bodies for these companies - people coming out with back problems, carpal tunnel, messed up ankles and feet. But then when they retire, they have nothing.

SHAPIRO: Workers gave up those benefits in 2007 negotiations. They also took huge pay cuts, which the new contract will only slowly undo. So far, a majority of union members have voted in favor of the contracts, but workers at several big factories have rejected the deal. Union president Fain acknowledges some workers' frustrations. He spoke to Here And Now from WBUR.

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FAIN: We didn't fix everything. I mean, we were trying to fix, you know, things that have been going on for 20-plus years. And, you know, it's hard to fix all those things in one contract.

SHAPIRO: But even as the vote continues, he's looking ahead to his next fight. He wants to grow the UAW to get into plants that aren't currently unionized, run by companies like BMW and Tesla. Here's what he said in a recent speech.

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FAIN: When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won't just be with the Big Three but with the Big Five or Big Six.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - the UAW deals are defined by their promise as a victory that could kick-start a broader push for worker power, but they are also defined by their limits. They may not bring back the middle-class lifestyle autoworkers enjoyed decades ago.

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SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Tuesday, November 14.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Autoworker jobs at the Big Three used to set the gold standard for the middle class, but that hasn't been true for a long time. Now the question is, can the historic contracts that the UAW won on the picket line actually turn things around? NPR's Andrea Hsu dug into that question.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: In early October, I met Jim Cooper on the picket line outside the Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio. He was feeling good about what the UAW had achieved by that point, including far more in raises than he'd seen in his 10 years on the production line. But he was holding out for more.

JIM COOPER: It's a good time for unions to make a push to fight for the middle class because I think without stuff like this, there's not going to be a middle class in America much longer.

HSU: Cooper told me higher wages at the auto plant will drive up wages at suppliers and other employers nearby, and that could mean a lot for Toledo.

COOPER: It's the Midwest. It's been kind of a depressed area. But whatever is good for us is going to be good for everyone here.

HSU: When I caught up with him by phone after the strike was over, he told me he originally took the job at Stellantis for the benefits and the overtime. He started at less than $16 an hour and slowly worked his way up to the top wage, almost $32 an hour. And with overtime...

COOPER: Yeah, I felt like I was finally, like, middle class, I mean, if I'm working a full week and then picking up, like, a Saturday.

HSU: He and his wife own their house, a 1,200-square-foot ranch. His three sons share a room. His daughter has her own. With his income, his wife was able to quit her job and spend more time with the kids. She's been running the PTA and band boosters at their schools.

COOPER: And this is all stuff that working at the plant has given us.

HSU: But life has been far from easy.

COOPER: Inflation went crazy the last couple of years. I mean, it's been like a give and take. Like, I feel like we're ahead for a while, and then we would start to fade back.

HSU: Now, if the new contract is ratified, Cooper's wage will rise to just over $40 an hour by 2027, but he might wind up working less. Under the contract, his plant will be moving from 10-hour shifts to eight-hour shifts.

COOPER: So we will be losing, like, two hours of overtime a day.

HSU: And while $40 an hour may sound like a lot, when adjusted for inflation, it's actually what autoworkers were making 20 years ago before concessions cut auto wages in half. In other words, even with historic raises, autoworkers will have to wait another four years to catch up to where they were. Charley Ballard, a longtime economist at Michigan State, understands why there's frustration. For decades, he says, autoworkers at the Big Three weren't just getting by. They earned enough to own nice cars and homes, a cottage at the lake.

CHARLEY BALLARD: That was real. There was a generation of people who graduated from Lansing Sexton High School who almost literally walked across the street to upper-middle-class wages and benefits.

HSU: Benefits for life, the high cost of which sent two of the Big Three into bankruptcy. The golden era ended right before the near-collapse of the auto industry and the 2008 financial crisis. And since, life has been very different for autoworkers. Starting wages have been closer to what you can make at Target. Workers do have 401(k)s but no retiree health care, something Marcelina Pedraza, a Ford electrician, worries about.

MARCELINA PEDRAZA: Because a lot of folks know Medicare is not enough.

HSU: Still, as a single mom, she says the contract will give her and her daughter a bit more of a safety net.

PEDRAZA: I'll be able to pay off some credit card debt. That's for sure. I'll be able to do some home improvement projects that I've been putting off.

HSU: As for Jim Cooper, he says the extra money will allow him to take his family to Disney, something they've been wanting to do, but it might still be a while.

COOPER: Probably not next year, maybe 2025.

HSU: And of course, workers still need to ratify the contract.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Andrea Hsu.

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SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, jobs under UAW contracts used to be a guarantee of a comfortable middle-class life. They also used to be a lot more common. In 1979, UAW membership was 1.5 million. Today it's 380,000, and half of those aren't in the auto industry. So even as members vote on the new contracts with the Big Three automakers, union leadership is focused on expanding. They want to unionize workers at foreign automakers and at Tesla. NPR's Camila Domonoske has been reporting on that. Hi.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Why is organizing at companies like Tesla a priority for the union?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it's really almost existential for the union. This has been a goal for a long time. You mentioned how much smaller the UAW is than it used to be. Most cars that are sold today are not made by UAW workers. Most parts that go into cars aren't made by UAW workers. So the union expanded into some other industries, like you alluded to, organizing graduate students and casino workers. And they've been trying for years to organize at these nonunion plants, so Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, especially in the South, and then more recently, Tesla, the American automaker that's dominating electric vehicle sales and growing really rapidly.

Getting those workers, convincing them to join the union is a path forward for the union to expand its strength over time, right? And the union also makes the case that it would help those workers. And this is a big goal for the union from the very top leadership all the way down to the rank-and-file. I spoke to Patty Ellison, a UAW member who works at a Mopar warehouse in Michigan, and she said to me, when she sees nonunionized autoworkers complaining on Facebook...

PATTY ELLISON: How it's not fair that we're getting this, but they're not - well, join the union.

DOMONOSKE: And then, she says, we all benefit.

SHAPIRO: So Tesla is an American car company. Why is it specifically difficult to win over those workers in particular?

DOMONOSKE: Well, Tesla as a company has resisted unionization both through legal methods like having persuasion campaigns and methods that the federal agency that monitors this has determined to be illegal - things like firing people or threatening to take away stock options. The stock options themselves are an interesting factor here. I mean, it's very unusual that production workers, factory workers at Tesla get stock options, and depending on your timing, you could make a lot of money off Tesla stock, right? So it's a little hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison to the wages that the union negotiates.

Then you've got Elon Musk who is personally opposed to the UAW specifically, right? He said that that union destroys productivity, betrays workers, embezzles from them. And on that point, you know, the UAW's previous leadership was deeply corrupt. A lot of former UAW officials are serving jail time right now for taking bribes from auto companies and stealing dues from members. So despite previous efforts and despite having a plant in California - which is not the right-to-work South, right? - Tesla workers have never really come close to joining the union.

SHAPIRO: And what makes the UAW think this time might be different?

DOMONOSKE: Well, the UAW would say, look, we have new leadership. That old, corrupt regime got the boot - our new leader, Shawn Fain, this fiery, ambitious reformer. We got big wins in these new contracts - obviously going to be very important if the members vote to ratify those right now. You've got - big picture, this economy gives workers more leverage than they used to have, and there's more support for unions than there used to be. You know, I'll note even with all that, it is definitely going to be an uphill battle at Tesla and at the foreign automakers in the South. There are no guarantees that a big push to unionize would be successful.

SHAPIRO: And what if the union doesn't win this battle?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Interestingly, workers who aren't in the union might still benefit. UAW worker pay would go up so much under these contracts - for some workers, it's more than doubling - that that pushes up wages across the board through competitive pressure. And in some cases, nonunionized companies want to pay their workers enough that they aren't tempted to join a union, right? You know, Hyundai just gave workers a 25% raise over several years. That came after Toyota announced a 9% raise immediately after this contract was announced. UAW President Shawn Fain spoke about that not long after. He said that UAW stands for you are welcome. And there's a double meaning there for those Toyota workers, right? - you're welcome, like, we did that for you, and you're welcome to join us.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I was hoping you would say you're welcome.

DOMONOSKE: Oh (laughter), you're right.

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SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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