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Why this fight is so personal for the UAW workers on strike

Ford workers meet with United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on July 12, 2023. The UAW is fighting hard to regain the things they gave up before and during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
Bill Pugliano
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Ford workers meet with United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on July 12, 2023. The UAW is fighting hard to regain the things they gave up before and during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Eric Mullins, a third-generation UAW worker picketing outside the massive Michigan Assembly Plant near Detroit, wasn't itching to strike. Some of his colleagues were sleepless with excitement the night before the strike began, eager to make history. Not Mullins; he would much rather be working.

But he only needed to glance a few feet to the side for a reminder of why he's as determined as anybody to see this strike through.

Mullins has worked at Ford for over three years. He still remembers his first day on the line, vividly. He was scrambling to keep up as he heaved heavy wheels and tires onto vehicles and torqued the lug nuts down — and he only had one minute per car.

As he stands near one of his factory's gates, holding a sign, most of the drivers that pass by honk in support. But the occasional heckler drives by, too, and then Mullins would remember wrestling with those very same tires.

"'We're lazy and we don't work hard,' " he scoffs. "They've never worked like we've worked."

Mullins now works in material handling, driving a high-low – a forklift. He works just as hard as the coworkers picketing next to him on a crisp fall morning.

But he doesn't get the same pay.

"Rob has been here since '88 and Sofus has been here just as long," he says. "They make double what I do, double. And I do the same job. I work with Rob all the time. Same job, same skillset."

Decades ago, equal pay for equal work was a sacrosanct UAW right. But before and during the Great Recession, the union accepted lower pay for newer workers.

It was one of many concessions the UAW agreed to in order to help automakers stay afloat.

And this is fundamentally what the union's push is all about as the UAW embarks on an unprecedented strike against all Big Three automakers at once. It's an attempt to reset the relationship with the Big 3 automakers, roll back the clock, and bring back the pay and benefits that previous generations of autoworkers enjoyed.

A multi-prong fight

The UAW is demanding pay increases of over 30% in the latest contract negotiations with the Big Three automakers — but that's not the only fight.

The gap in pay between new and older workers is also a big reason for the strikes.

These days, workers who are at the companies for long enough can eventually earn the same pay as their colleagues hired before 2007. But the union wants that timeline to be faster.

And they want new hires to get the same retirement benefits as years past, too.

Mullins, for instance, will get a 401k in retirement. That's commonplace in today's workforce, but it used to be different for UAW workers. Mullins' dad was also a union member — and he has a far sweeter deal waiting for him when he retires.

"He'll still have insurance," Mullins says. "He'll get a pension, all his benefits."

President Biden addresses striking UAW members at a picket line outside a General Motors Service Parts Operations plant in Belleville, Mich., on Sept. 26, 2023. Biden joined the picket line earlier this month, in an extraordinary show of support for striking workers.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden addresses striking UAW members at a picket line outside a General Motors Service Parts Operations plant in Belleville, Mich., on Sept. 26, 2023. Biden joined the picket line earlier this month, in an extraordinary show of support for striking workers.

Ford has offered the union substantial raises and the return of cost-of-living pay increases, among other concessions. GM and Stellantis say their offers are competitive, too.

But all three unionized automakers say they simply can't afford to give back everything the UAW used to have – not while investing in electric vehicles and competing with non-unionized companies. Those rich retirement benefits, sources at automakers say, were a key part of the companies' financial woes 15 years ago and aren't sustainable now.

A class struggle

Mullins, like many workers on the picket line, doesn't buy that argument. He points to Ford CEO Jim Farley's pay last year, north of $20 million.

Ford, GM and Stellantis have all been highly profitable for the last few years, and the union is arguing that much more of that wealth can and should flow to the people who build the vehicles.

"There's money there," Mullins says. "I get that we can't have everything we asked for ... Let's face it, it's negotiations. You gotta start somewhere."

But eventually, he says, "everybody's got to come to the middle and agree on something."

Yes, the union's push is personal for him. It's about getting the kind of pay his coworker Rob has, and the kind of retirement his dad will have, and his grandfather had.

But like others on this picket line, he, too, sees this as part of a bigger struggle.

"The problem is the rich want to get richer, and they want to keep the poor poorer and they want to wipe out the working class," he says.

He hopes the strike helps the union secure significant and lasting gains. And he hopes it's over soon — a long strike is good for no one, he says.

The union reported progress in talks with Ford earlier, but last week expanded the strike to another Ford plant.

"We gotta to take a stand for something," Mullins says, with mingled determination and resignation. "Really, this should have happened years ago, when everybody else gave up their stuff and never got it back."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.