Rodney Dangerfield was among the comedic greats, best remembered for his self-mocking, “I get no respect.” The UAW increasingly and deservedly gets no respect, even by its own union members.
In an alarming slap in the face that should have UAW’s leadership reeling, some 500 employees at the Clarios battery manufacturing plant in the Toledo suburb of Holland went on strike Monday after overwhelmingly rejecting a UAW negotiated agreement a week-and-a-half earlier.
How overwhelmingly, you ask? Like 98%. Only three workers voted against a stoppage.
“If the union did not call us out, we were ready to go out anyway, and we knew the union would have to follow us,” an unidentified young worker with seven years in the factory told the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). “We get paid for the number of units we build. But a lot of time, it’s out of our control because the machines break down. Now they’re reducing our pay. We had a town hall meeting in the plant, and we asked the plant manager, Rick, if HR and the rest of management was taking a pay cut too. He had the nerve to say that the managers had chosen the right career path and we didn’t.”
It’s a sad commentary on the state of America’s automotive press that the Clarios strike has been ignored, despite its major implications. Underscoring the disgrace of the UAW, at this writing there is no mention of the Clarios strike on the union’s website. Little wonder why the UAW has difficulty organizing plants because it’s increasingly questionable the benefits the union delivers to its working-class members.
The Big Three automakers will begin contract talks this fall, and the Clarios contract was one of the first negotiated under the leadership of Shawn Fain, a supposedly “reform” candidate who was elected president because of some tough talk about taking a “more aggressive approach” in contract negotiations.
If the Clarios contract is an example of Fain’s negotiating skills, America’s auto workers fast need to find alternative employment or continue to suffer a declining standard of living. A recent comment made by Ford CEO Jim Farley that many of his company’s workers lack the smarts and talent to transition to EVs and Stellantis’ recent announcement that it wants to slash 60% of its workforce indicates how little regard and respect the major automakers have for the UAW.
In years past, when union contract talks were looming, U.S. automakers kept their corporate heads down to avoid angering the UAW and triggering their rank-and-file. Farley’s comment and Stellantis’ aggressive downsizing suggests a “bring it on” mindset.
Clarios, formerly known as Johnson Controls Power Solutions, was acquired by the private equity-owned Brookfield Business Partners in 2019 for $13.2 billion and claims to produce batteries for one-third of the vehicles on the road. As best I can determine reading local Toledo news reports and WSWS’ coverage, the plant mostly produces acid-lead batteries, although a local news report last year said the plant was also the first in the U.S. to build lithium-ion batteries in 2010.
Batteries manufactured at Clarios’ Toledo plant are used by GM, Ford, and Stellantis, and are also sold in the so-called retail aftermarket under more than two dozen brand names such as DieHard, Interstate, Duralast, AC Delco, and Kirkland.
Working in a lead-battery plant comes with tremendous health risks because prolonged exposure to lead can be fatal. Workers at Clarios’ plant must use special lead-remover soap because the lead sticks to their hair. That’s why none of the plant workers have facial hair.
“We do not get any hazard pay,” an unidentified Clarios plant worker told WSWS. “We work with powdered oxide and lead, and we touch it and breathe it. They draw blood from us every month to check the lead levels in our blood. You also got signs all over the place about asbestos being present. It’s wrong. People quit or retire from here and boom, they get cancer and die.”
WSWS quoted an unidentified worker saying that base pay starts at $12 an hour and goes up to $20 or more, depending on seniority.
“We used to get 200 percent of our pay if we produced 800 batteries in a day,” WSWS quoted the unidentified worker as saying. “They increased that to 900, and now its 1,000. They tell these new workers they can make $100,000 a year if they work hard but a lot of them are barely getting $13 an hour.”
Another striking worker with four years of experience told WSWS, “The union wanted us to accept a 3 percent wage increase after we’ve already lost $10 an hour in the last two pay cuts. There is no way we were going to take that with groceries and the cost of living constantly going up.”
Inflation is projected at 5% in 2023.
Fain’s political positions should give UAW members serious pause for concern. In a message obtained by CNBC, Fain said the Democratic party aligned union was so far withholding its support for Joe Biden’s reelection but noted “another Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster.” Fain said the union needed to “get our members organized behind a pro-worker, pro-climate, and pro-democracy political program that can deliver for the working class.”
Joe Biden and the Democrats decidedly are not pro-worker looking to further the interests of America’s working class but rather Mexico’s blue-collar workers.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was possibly the most hostile legislation against U.S. workers ever passed. The legislation encourages U.S. automakers to move their EV manufacturing to lower-cost Mexico because EVs assembled in that country are eligible for the same federal and state tax breaks they would qualify for if assembled in America. Under Biden’s leadership, GM CEO Mary Barra was emboldened to invest more than $1 billion in Mexico last year, expanding GM’s position as the biggest manufacturer and exporter in that country.
GM’s electric Chevy Equinox, slated for deliveries later this year, will be shipped from Mexico, where Ford proudly assembles its electric Mustang.
IRA also hurts the competitiveness of Clarios because it allows Ford to license technology from a China-based battery manufacturer and still qualify its EVs for federal and state subsidies. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spearheaded $1.7 billion in taxpayer subsidies to help finance a Ford lithium battery plant on fertile farmland. Ford will pay a 12% royalty and help expand its China partner’s already global EV battery dominance rather than support a U.S.-based battery manufacturer and supplier. Clarios is reportedly looking to expand into more lucrative electric battery manufacturing.
As for Trump, Fain would be wise to recall that in January 2017 Ford cancelled plans to a build a small-car assembly plant in Mexico that Trump repeatedly criticized. Hours earlier, Trump threatened to impose tariffs on cars made in Mexico by General Motors.
“We are encouraged by the pro-growth plans that President-elect Trump and the new Congress indicate they will pursue,” Mark Fields, Ford’s CEO at the time, was quoted in the New York Times as saying. The Times said Fields “made clear” that Trump’s emphasis on tax changes and cutting regulations would have an overall positive effect on automakers such as Ford.
“We have a president-elect who has said very clearly that one of his first priorities is to grow the economy,” Fields said. “That should be music to our ears.”
Fain and other UAW officials recently visited Washington arguing for the need of a “just transition” to electric vehicles. As EVs require fewer workers to assemble, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of UAW jobs will be eliminated or moved to Mexico and other low cost countries.
Canada’s auto union leaders are running circles around the UAW’s U.S. leadership. Not surprisingly, they are still a powerful political force in their home country.
In 2020 bargaining with the Big Three automakers, Unifor secured more than $4.5 billion in combined commitments from Ford, GM and Stellantis to manufacture EVs in Canada. Since then, Stellantis announced plans to build a lithium-ion battery plant in Windsor and VW announced plans build an EV battery plant in St. Thomas, Ontario.
Unifor, the largest private sector union in Canada, was founded in 2013 with the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions.
Michigan Capital Confidential (CapCon), published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, reported last month that the United Auto Workers international union added about 11,000 new members in 2022, but its Michigan branch continued to hemorrhage.
According to the UAW’s recently released federal filings, the international union’s membership rose to 383,000 members last year, compared with 372,000 in 2021. The union had more than 430,000 members in 2016 and more than 700,000 in 2001.
The Michigan branch of the UAW declined last year by about 50 people to 133,946 members. In 2016, UAW-Michigan had 154,000 members, and 270,000 members in 2001.
CapCon attributed the decline of the UAW’s Michigan membership to the state’s right to work law, which allowed workers to choose whether to join a union. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this year spearheaded a repeal of that law, and CapCon estimates that 60,000 workers in Michigan will be forced into labor unions against their will.
That might prove beneficial to the UAW’s coffers in the short term, but forcing members to join the UAW will likely breed ill will, particularly if the union can’t negotiate contracts that keeps workers’ wages apace with inflation.
The UAW might be wise to consider following the example of their Canadian union brethren and merging with a labor organization that can negotiate meaningful contracts for their members, like the University of Michigan’s Professional Nurse Council (UMPNC). The group last October negotiated a four-year, $273 million package that included a 22.5% raise over the course of the contract, a $5,000 bonus for each nurse, elimination of mandatory overtime and expanded staffing guidelines.
That’s what I call a contract. Union leadership that advises its members to ratify a contract offering a measly 3% pay increase should hang their heads in shame and step aside.