BEAVERTON, Ore. — A staple gun goes thwack-thwack as a union member secures “UAW ON STRIKE” posters to wooden pickets, placing them in a bucket beneath a pop-up rain shelter.
I’m standing in front of a Chrysler parts distribution center on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. This warehouse — which services dealerships across the Pacific Northwest and as far away as Montana — has been idle since workers walked out on Friday, as part of the widening auto workers’ strike against the Big Three car manufacturers. It’s the first time the UAW has struck against GM, Ford, and Stellantis simultaneously. The historic stoppage may significantly impact both the economy and the 2024 presidential election.
Dozens of workers line the noisy street wearing “Fair Pay Now” T-shirts and plastic ponchos, and they erupt in cheers when a passing Amazon delivery truck honks in solidarity. The mood on the sidewalk is upbeat, but local leaders are clear-eyed about the struggle: “We’re up against a juggernaut,” says warehouse worker Grant Wagner, “that doesn’t give a shit about people.”
This distribution center is owned by Stellantis, the European conglomerate that gobbled up Chrysler, Jeep, and Ram through a merger with Fiat/Chrysler in 2021. Wagner is the chair of the striking UAW Local 492. “It’s a sad state of affairs when you have what used to be an American, iconic company, such as Chrysler, turning their backs on the American auto worker,” he says. The auto worker is the middle class.”
Jamming up parts distribution is the UAW’s latest escalation in its bid to force massively profitable automakers to share the wealth. The UAW is demanding higher wages, an end to “tiers” of workers who receive lesser pay for the same work, and better benefits for all members — including a restoration of inflation protections and retirement guarantees that the union ceded during the darkest days of the Great Recession. (The UAW is striking all three companies, but Ford has so far been spared the distribution strike, marking that company’s more fruitful engagement in contract talks.)
The pressure on the Big Three is only increasing this week as President Joe Biden takes the unprecedented step of joining picketing factory workers in Dearborn, Michigan, on Tuesday afternoon. Donald Trump will also visit with autoworkers in Clinton, Michigan, on Wednesday — part of the side-show he’s orchestrating to compete with the GOP presidential primary debate that he is boycotting.
The fact that political rivals Biden and Trump are both catering to UAW workers this week reflects the broad political backing enjoyed by the striking workers, as well as the political importance of the industrial Midwest states to the 2024 contest.
Wagner wears a reflective vest and carries an American flag over his shoulder. He scoffs at former president Trump’s overtures to the union rank-and-file: “I remember him saying that the auto worker was overpaid,” he says. That sentiment is echoed by Victor Quiroz, a director with the UAW who helps steer union operations in nine western states. “He would be a disaster for the American working families,” he says of Trump. Pointing to the Republican’s massive corporate tax cut in 2017, Quiroz adds. “He was a disaster.”
Quiroz traveled to Oregon from his home base in Southern California to help with the UAW’s rollout of strike benefits, including $500 a week in strike pay for affected workers. Quiroz says he’s guardedly optimistic about Biden’s visit to the picket lines: “This is an opportunity for him. He calls himself the most-union-friendly president that we’ve had. This gives him a chance to walk the walk.”
The UAW workers at this Stellantis facility toil at demanding, physical jobs — unloading semi trailers, and stocking and picking autoparts. They use pallet jacks, scissor lifts, and cherry pickers, and hoist everything from bulky mufflers to 80-pound catalytic converters. According to Wagner, work-life inside the plant is “all about going fast,” with the company demanding “go, go, go” productivity, heedless of the impact on worker health. “We worked through Covid. We were essential workers. We bust our ass.”
The striking workers speaking to Rolling Stone lamented stagnant wages and tiered pay and benefits based on a worker’s start date, a legacy of past contracts when the union had less leverage. Kyler Hornback, 27, has been working for more than seven years at the distribution center. He’s a “tier three” employee who makes $24 an hour. But if he were a “tier one” employee, he’d be getting close to $32 an hour for the same labor. A fourth tier, of temporary workers, he adds, makes less than $16 an hour, just a hair above the local minimum wage. “They can’t get temps anymore,” Hornback says, “because they pay more at McDonalds.”
Workers here are committed to the strike. “I’m ready to go as long as it takes,” Hornback says. “It shouldn’t take a whole decade to get paid when my coworkers get paid.” To a member, the UAW workers sang the praises of the union’s new president, Shawn Fain. “He’s really playing hardball,” says Jamie Jones, 50, another “tier three” member, who has worked at the distribution center nearly five years.
Oregon is a solid blue state. But even here the working-class men on the picket line are skeptical of Biden and the Democratic party. They note that Biden’s jump to join the picket line followed Trump’s unusual overtures to autoworkers. “It seemed like he was uninterested until Trump said something,” says 55-year-old Rudy Fuentes. “I just don’t feel like he’s really being genuine about it.” Jones echoes the concern that the president is more concerned countering Trump than championing the worker’s contract demands. “Biden started going, ‘I need some votes. Wait a minute — I better go over there.’”
A pair of women near the front of the picket line are wielding a megaphone and marshaling motorists to honk their support. They are not UAW workers, rather leaders with Jobs with Justice, a nonprofit that promotes worker rights and economic justice. “I think politicians have a role in the labor movement,” the group’s executive director, Jill Pham, says. “But ultimately, the strength comes from the workers at the bottom. Politicians can make promises — and they do all the time on the campaign trail — but when it really comes down to it, we’re on our own.”
Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/autoworkers-strike-skeptical-trump-biden-1234831702/