While UAW President Shawn Fain often criticizes automakers as greedy, hourly workers on the strike line are toggling demands for better pay and benefits with longtime loyalty to the companies.
Outside Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne on Tuesday, the 12th day of the UAW strike, workers talked of finding a delicate balance between loyalty to union solidarity and car companies that employ them.
“I’ll always love Ford. They blessed me with being able to provide for my family,” said Leonard Green, 43, an assembler from Belleville finishing his 6 a.m. to noon shift on the picket line outside the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne.
“We’re not, you know, trying to destroy the economy or anything,” he said. “We just want to be able to live. I just want to get a contract and get back to work.”
After 12 days of carrying “UAW ON STRIKE” picket signs, workers talked this week of lives devoted to the 120-year-old automaker and concern about paying bills as cost of living continues to climb. Despite staying strong and unified, they say they’re ready to return to the factory that makes Bronco and Ranger and put the fight behind them.
But they will remain steadfast until Fain and his union negotiators give the cue.
“Regular paychecks have stopped, and strike pay will start coming,” said Mike Smith, vice president of UAW Local 900, who can be found standing with striking workers assigned in groups at gates all the way around the huge factory that runs along Michigan Avenue.
That means workers are earning $500 a week now from the UAW strike fund, as long as they fulfill their strike obligations on the line.
“The reality of why we’re willing to fight is for the social justice we deserve, safer working conditions, job guarantees,” said Smith, 52, of Wayne. “The majority of people understand the pattern of negotiation in the beginning is when the union is asking for more and the company is asking for less. We need to come down to reality. From 2007 to 2023, they never gave back the concessions we gave up. We’re asking for what we lost when we helped save the automakers from going bankrupt.”
Holding the line
On the picket lines, strike captains walk from gate to gate at targeted strike sites and check workers off the schedule. People remain upbeat. Piles of wood and steel drums with fire inside now exist at each gate at Michigan Assembly, providing heat for striking workers. (This was a common site at General Motors plants during the 2019 strike that lasted 40 days.)
Workers are making homemade chicken noodle soup, chili, hamburgers, cheeseburgers and even individually-packaged salads for the Ford strikers. Other companies and individuals donate breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee and water supplies, workers said.
Food can also be found 24/7 at the union hall, across the street from the factory, including an enormous bowl of bananas and apples and oranges, and also delivered to the windy strike lines to maintain energy. Temperatures drop to high 50s and low 60s overnight.
But focus on purpose is not lost in the darkness.
“I’m really proud to work here. I’ve always loved my job,” Tiffany Lockley, 49, an assembler from Ypsilanti told the Free Press at the end of her 6-hour strike shift outside the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne on Tuesday.
“I’m thinking of the change we’re making. A lot of people feel union workers make so much and play around,” she said. “We work, provide for our families and want job security, a decent pension and to be able to enjoy our lives like any other American.”
Being on the picket line, Lockley said, after working for Ford since 1999, is bittersweet and rewarding. She tossed a log onto the fire in the steel drum, having spent part of her strike shift in what she described as a cool misty rain.
“You’re fighting for a cause not only for yourself but for those coming up behind us,” she said. “This is a necessity. It needs to be done, issues need to be addressed. It’s been so long.”
At the next gate down, Jodi Lee, 47, a vehicle inspector from Tecumseh who has spent 29 years of her life working for Ford, started her strike shift at noon Tuesday. She said the frequent strike talk updates from Fain and the negotiating team gives workers hope. She wondered if her dad might be coming down to the strike line with her pa-paw (grandpa), who is 92 now. Both worked for Ford and they like to talk shop.
“My dad did the original Bronco. I did the ’95 Bronco and my daughter is building the new Bronco,” Lee said proudly. “Our family has been at this plant since it opened” in 1957, making Mercury station wagons.”
Her father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great uncles have all worked at Ford.
“Ford has taken care of me my whole life,” Lee said. “I hired in at 18 and I’ve had a great life. I’m really proud to work here. I’ve always loved my job. For me, this is more emotional.”
People aren’t angry at Ford, Lee explained. “But this is not just Bill Ford’s legacy. This is our family legacy, too. We’re all one team, management and whatever. They’re giving new kids a job but not showing them a future. I saw people have a good life. When you show people a future, you don’t have turnover and absenteeism.”
These are the things workers talk about when the TV trucks leave.
“We talk about possibilities of the contract,” Green said. “We just want to not have to struggle so much.”
Reporters having identified themselves as associated with media outlets in China, Japan, Australia and Germany are covering the historic strike and have stopped by to interview workers, Smith told the Free Press.
Energy on the line remains strong, Smith said. “Everyone in this location has complete faith in the negotiation team, led by (UAW Ford Vice President) Chuck Browning. People are standing tall and holding the line. We want to be partners but we’re not afraid to fight for our fair share.”
Marcel Edwards, 60, of Warren is a production system coordinator at the Michigan Assembly Plant who has spent more than three decades on the UAW Local 900 executive board.
“This is bigger than just a strike,” he said. “It’s a generational thing. If you believe in what we’re doing, by all means, show up.”
‘I started at $16.76 an hour’
People from Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio have shown up to walk the line in support of the UAW, Smith said. And factory workers from throughout Michigan who are not on strike still work the strike lines.
Chuck Taylor, 29, of Detroit has worked at the Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti for 14 months making battery packs for the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning but joins the strike line after his workday ends. He has done four six-hour shifts on the strike line.
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“I started at $16.76 an hour and it was a rough time,” he said, sitting outside the union hall resting before heading off to work 3 p.m. to midnight. “I’m at $19.10 now. Inflation has impacted everyone.”
Workers show up day in and day out to help companies make money, Taylor said. “There’s very little return.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Regular paychecks stop for UAW members on strike