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Breakthrough in UAW strike, but workers prepared to hold out until a fair agreement

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The strike of autoworkers against the big three automakers is in its fourth week. There is no deal. There has been a major breakthrough. NPR's Andrea Hsu and Danielle Kaye are covering the strike. Thank you both for joining us.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Andrea, what's this development?

HSU: Well, it has to do with electric-vehicle battery plants. So one of the union's biggest concerns is how many jobs are going to be lost in this transition to EVs. The UAW has wanted these battery jobs to be union jobs, and that seemed like a nonstarter with the auto companies. It wasn't clear that they'd even agree to discuss that in these talks. But yesterday, Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers union, announced that GM has now agreed to include their EV battery plants in the national agreement, meaning it seems like there will be union jobs in those plants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN FAIN: We've been told for months that this is impossible, and now we've called their bluff.

HSU: Now, Scott, we still haven't heard the details of what GM has agreed to. In fact, GM wouldn't comment on it at all. But it does appear to be a significant win for the union. And because of this, Fain did not expand the strike against GM this week. In fact, he didn't expand the strike against any of the automakers, citing other gains.

SIMON: And, Danielle, based on what you've learned, how long can the automakers go on without an agreement?

KAYE: Yeah. Well, it all depends on what the UAW does next. I've been talking to auto industry analysts about this, and they say at the current pace of the strike, the companies have enough inventory to get them through several months of a strike before taking a huge hit to their business. But that's all with a big caveat. It's assuming the UAW doesn't target plants that make large SUVs and full-size pickup trucks. Those are the most profitable parts of the automakers' business. The union hasn't done this yet, but Shawn Fain said just yesterday that it's something the union is still willing to do.

The companies are clearly desperate to avoid that kind of painful expansion. I mean, just this week, the union threatened to go on strike at a GM assembly plant in Arlington, Texas, that builds full-size SUVs. And according to Fain, that threat is what pressured GM to make the breakthrough EV concession Andrea just mentioned.

SIMON: And how are autoworkers doing, based on your reporting?

KAYE: Well, the UAW is prepared for a long fight. It had roughly $825 million in its strike fund when the walkout started last month. It uses that fund to pay striking workers and workers laid off because of the strike. They're all getting $500 a week. So all that's to say, at the moment, the fund is being depleted by several million dollars per week. But for most workers, strike pay is just roughly 40% of their usual weekly wages. So a lot of workers are going to feel the pinch if the strike goes on for a while longer. Here's Brian Stennett (ph). He works at a Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.

BRIAN STENNETT: I can last until they come up with a fair agreement, I guess.

SIMON: Andrea, you were in Michigan and Ohio. You spoke with workers on the picket line. What did they tell you?

HSU: Yeah. Well, they said they are finding ways to get by by not eating out, by watching what they buy. Here's Jim Cooper who works at that same Jeep plant.

JIM COOPER: It's tough. It's a lot different than what I normally make. And I'm from a single-income household with four kids.

KAYE: And, Scott, he's got a 10-year-old and three teenagers, and he says they eat quite a bit, especially one who's a runner. He told me he actually put in applications this week at some big-box stores just to try and make a little extra money to support his family. But he's also really proud to be on the picket line fighting not just for himself, but for the cause.

COOPER: It'll be worth it once we get through this, the security and the benefits in the future. Like Shawn Fain said, short-term pain for long-term benefit. That's what we're looking at.

SIMON: Andrea, sounds like he has confidence in Shawn Fain's leadership. Same with other workers?

HSU: Yeah, actually. In Toledo, I also met Dawnya Ferdinandsen, who builds transmissions for GM, for the Chevy Silverado and other trucks. She told me she's behind Fain 110%.

DAWNYA FERDINANDSEN: Whatever he does, I believe in him. I think this plan is very well thought out. I'm sure they thought of every direction, what the big three can do, will do, might do. They thought all that out.

HSU: And, you know, listening to Fain, you can see why he's so popular among the rank and file. He showed up on Facebook Live yesterday wearing this T-shirt that said Eat The Rich. He loves playing up class politics. He's straight-up said, these billionaire executives, they think we are dumb.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: They look at me, and they see some redneck from Indiana.

HSU: But, you know, Scott, he said, they don't know us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: We may be foul mouthed, but we're strategic. We may get fired up, but we're disciplined. And we may get rowdy, but we're organized.

HSU: And that organization, the discipline, the strategy, it's becoming more and more apparent how effective that's all been the longer this strike goes on.

SIMON: NPR's Andrea Hsu and NPR's Danielle Kaye. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAYE: Thank you, Scott.

HSU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.