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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

UAW says it aims to organize nonunion auto plants

“One of our biggest goals coming out of this historic contract victory is to organize like we’ve never organized before,” said Shawn Fain, the United Automobile Workers president.

By Neal E. Boudette

After winning major gains in wages and benefits from two of the three Detroit automakers, the United Auto Workers union is looking beyond the Motor City to car companies operating nonunion factories across the South.

In a speech to union members livestreamed Sunday night on Facebook, the UAW president, Shawn Fain, said the union planned a push to organize plants at some of the nonunion automakers, such as Toyota, Honda and Tesla.

“One of our biggest goals coming out of this historic contract victory is to organize like we’ve never organized before,” Fain said. “When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t just be with the Big Three. It will be the Big Five or Big Six.”

The statement was one of Fain’s clearest to date that the UAW intended to renew efforts to unionize the plants of foreign-owned automakers and Tesla, which operates nonunion vehicle plants in California and Texas.

The UAW has previously tried to unionize Southern auto plants — where workers typically make significantly less than the top UAW wage — with little success. While it has unionized some small component plants in the South, and represents workers employed by heavy truck manufacturers such as Mack and Freightliner, it has not been able to organize plants owned by any major automaker there.

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted against UAW representation in 2014. Workers at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, did the same in 2017. UAW organizers have also tried to win support at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama.

Fain said the increased wages and benefits in a tentative contract agreement with Ford Motor Co. would help the UAW and other unions win gains for working-class people.

Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who has followed the UAW for more than three decades, said the tentative agreements with Ford and Stellantis should improve the UAW’s image and lift its prospects in the South.

“The union is not back to where it was 30 years ago in terms of influence, but this is a step to restoring power to the UAW and to unions in general,” he said.

On Sunday, a UAW council that oversees negotiations with Ford approved the tentative agreement hammered out with Ford on Wednesday. In a statement, Ford said it would give an assessment of how the contract affects its business after ratification.

On Saturday, the union announced it had a tentative contract agreement with Stellantis, the maker of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram vehicles.

The agreement closely follows the terms reached with Ford, a method known as pattern bargaining. Stellantis also agreed to reopen a plant in Belvidere, Illinois, that had been idled this year, and to keep an engine plant in Michigan and a machining factory in Ohio that the company had considered closing.

Union workers have begun returning to work at the three Ford plants that were affected by the union’s growing wave of strikes. Stellantis workers are expected to begin returning to work in the next day or so.

The UAW began its strikes Sept. 15 and eventually expanded the action to include about 18,000 workers at three Ford vehicle plants and more than 14,000 workers at two Stellantis plants that make pickup trucks and Jeeps along with 20 Stellantis parts distribution warehouses.

The union is continuing to negotiate with General Motors, and on Saturday expanded its strike against the automaker, telling workers to walk out at a factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee. All told, about 14,000 UAW workers are on strike at GM. The other affected locations include plants in Missouri, Michigan and Texas and 18 parts warehouses.

In a statement, GM said it was “disappointed” by the expansion of the strike, adding, “We have continued to bargain in good faith with the UAW, and our goal remains to reach an agreement as quickly as possible.”

Fain used most of his address to outline the details of the union’s tentative agreement with Ford. It calls for significant wage increases for many of the company’s 57,000 UAW workers. By the end of the agreement’s 4 1/2-year term, most workers will earn $40.82 an hour.

That gives workers now earning the top wage of $32 an hour increases of 25%; for some workers lower on the wage scale, wages will more than double. At the new top wage, employees working 40 hours a week will earn about $84,000 a year. Profit-sharing bonuses and overtime work will enable many UAW members to make more than $100,000 a year.

The tentative deal also gives workers additional paid time off, including two weeks of paid family leave and paid leave for jury duty. It also allows temporary employees, who currently earn $16.67 an hour, to gain permanent status after 90 days, and to rise to the top wage in three years.

If the agreement is ratified by a majority of Ford’s UAW workforce, most workers will get an immediate 11% wage increase and will be given bonuses of $5,000 each.

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