All photos by Katie Pruden.
TAPPAN, NY — On the right hand side of Route 303 sitting behind trees and a line of U.S. flags is the Chrysler Parts Distribution and Business Center just northwest of New York City in Rockland County. The Chrysler sign out front is partially blocked by the large outdoor tent pitched on the lawn. You can find striking workers from UAW Local 3039 there at any time of day. They picket at the intersection of the highway and the entrance to the parts distribution center. Three sides of their tent are patched with tarps that shield them from rain and sun. Inside the shelter is a microwave, table, refreshments and temporary kitchen wares. The union signs rest under the tent waiting for a change in picket shift.
“They’re struggling,” Local 3039 President Jeff Purcell says of Chrysler. “We can see how many trailers are going out, and there’s barely been any.”
The auto workers say that the company hasn‘t hired scabs. Management at the Chrysler plant in Tappan has been trying to man the stations themselves, and potentially have brought in as many as 20 “upstairs” workers that are on the payroll but haven’t been coming in since the pandemic began.
A HISTORIC STRIKE
The UAW’s first-ever strike against all of the Big Three automakers — Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (which owns Chrysler) — began on Sep. 15. It has rocked the auto industry which had grown accustomed to record profits, $250 billion over the past decade. Polls show overwhelming public support for the union, which has used strategically targeted strikes throughout the companies’ supply chains to pressure them to make concessions.
There are currently 34,000 out of 146,000 auto workers on strike with the Big Three sweating the possibility that many more could walk off their jobs. Local 3039 joined a second wave of strikers — workers at all GM and Stellantis parts-distribution centers across 20 states — who went on strike on Sep. 22.
The Tappan auto workers are running a 24/7 picket line. Each picket shift lasts eight hours, and all members participate in at least one shift over the course of a week.
When the striking Tappan auto workers and their allies walk the picket line, they are greeted with a stream of honks, raised fists or clapping from trucks as they pass the distribution plant. And groups and individuals visit the picket regularly in support of the striking workers.
“The support from all the unions has been phenomenal,” said Local 3039 President Jeff Purcell. He says that nurses, teachers, communication workers, Teamsters and screen writers have all visited in solidarity. Additionally, labor groups and the Democratic Socialists of America have come to the plant, as well as politicians such as New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Senator Chuck Schumer, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, local state legislators and Green Party presidential candidate Cornel West. More than half of Americans side with the auto workers.
Last week, a supporter pulled up to the picket in his SUV. He told a worker that he was concerned that the 36% pay raise that the union is demanding over the next four years would make cars too expensive.
“I told him that what they pay affects the cost of a car by only 4-5%,” a striking dockworker at the plant who asked to remain anonymous told The Indy. He bought a Chrysler truck in 2014 for $40,000. “Just the other day I was curious, and I looked to see what the cost of that car is today, and it’s $65,000.” In that same time, the dockworker has not seen a raise.
Veteran auto workers receive top wages of $32 per hour and have guaranteed pensions. However, they resent the steep decline in wages and benefits for younger workers due to concessionary contracts negotiated by the union’s old leadership.
“The biggest change was when we went through the two-tier change. That’s had an adverse effect down the line,” says Robert, a worker of 38 years.
Lower-tier workers work alongside top-tier workers, doing the same job for less pay and benefits, which has created notable tension on the shop floor and division among workers, say the picketers: “It’s awful. You’re working across from a guy and you’re both doing the same job, but you know he’s making less money than you,” said one longtime worker who asked to remain anonymous.
Resentment over the company’s failure to recognize their sacrifices also lingers.
“During the pandemic, we worked seven days a week for two years,” remarked another longtimer. They received no hazard pay or bonuses.
The workers’ resolve remains high despite the economic pain they endure in a strike. The union’s strike fund pays strikers $500 per week, a fraction of what they make when they are working.
“You do what you have to do,” says Robert. “I hope that maybe after the strike, it brings a little more camaraderie, Like showing the younger people and the older people that we can do things that have a common goal.”
In addition to grievances around wages and benefits, the Tappan auto workers cite poor conditions inside the parts-distribution plant.
“Every time it rains, you get leaks everywhere,” says one worker. “Sometimes it looks like a waterfall,” he continued, explaining that management uses plastic sheets to redirect rainwater so that it doesn’t land directly on the parts. The water is funneled into containers that stay sitting uncovered for weeks before being collected. Workers say the rusty parts that sent out usually are returned by the dealers.
Additionally, equipment is old and breaks regularly. A worker who has been at the plant for 40 years says over the course of his tenure he’s seen only the most “minimal update of equipment on a needs-only basis.”
When equipment breaks, it can take weeks or months for it to be fixed, claim workers at the Tappan plant, who say that before the strike, plant fire sirens were regularly being triggered on false alarm. The dockworker says it is particularly difficult when the bay doors won’t close during the winter, making for uncomfortably cold workdays. He added that the plant struggles to find companies that will do its repairs because it has a bad reputation in the area for not paying its bills.
Full-time UAW workers at the Big Three earn $15.78 to $31.57 an hour, depending on seniority — wages that have lagged far behind the rate of inflation. Starting pay hasn’t risen since 2015.
The union began negotiations demanding a 40% wage increase over four years, and has come down to 36%. It is also demanding that the automakers reinstate regular cost-of-living (COLA) adjustments to protect against inflation.
Ford and Stellantis have committed to restoring COLA, something that workers lost in 2009 after GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and required a massive federal bailout.
“And it was in that era that they implemented the tier system, and they gave up COLA, and these other things, in agreement that when a company was profitable, that all these things will be returned to us,” Purcell told The Indypendent. “So we made the sacrifices to make the companies profitable. But since they’ve been profitable, they basically haven’t been holding up their side of the bargain and giving us back the things that we gave up.”
The union is demanding an end to the tier system at the Big Three. Tier-one employees, hired before 2007, can receive top pay ($32) and have pensions. Tier-two employees, hired after 2007, receive the same benefits and pay as tier one, but no pension. Tier-three employees, which work at parts-distribution centers, max out at $25 top pay. If they want to make more money, they would have to agree to relocate.
Tier-four employees are temporary employees, which can easily be let go, and are a growing class of workers. All new hires come in as temps, and are made to work overnight and overtime more than other workers.
“Temps used to be a small group used only to cover for short periods. Now they’re an entire subsection of our union who have very few rights, low pay, and no certainty with their future,” UAW President Shawn Fain said on Facebook Live.
“What we were making was great in comparison to what everything was costing — it felt like a great job,” said the dockworker, who was hired in 1993. “My mother and my uncle worked here; that’s how I got the job. Back then, unless you knew somebody, you couldn’t work the job,” said the dockworker.
Things have sorely changed “People come in, but then they leave; It’s like a revolving door,” says Robert. He and other workers pointed out that a new worker can make the same starting wage at a McDonalds down the road from the plant without the same physical demands and forced night shifts.
Each Friday, President Fain updates UAW membership via livestream on the progress of negotiations and whether the strike will be expanded to new plants depending on the progress being made with each of the companies in contract negotiations.
Yesterday and the preceding Friday, Oct. 6, Fain announced no new strikes would be called. Wearing an “Eat the Rich” T-shirt, he arrived to the Oct. 6 livestream late and took the podium excitedly, announcing that GM had just conceded to the UAW’s demand that electric-vehicle batteries be manufactured at unionized plants.
“Moments before this broadcast,” Fain said, “we have had a major breakthrough that has not only dramatically changed negotiations, but it’s gonna change the future of our union and the future of our industry. We were about to shut down GM’s largest money maker in Arlington, Texas. The company knew those members werre ready to walk immediately and just that threat has provided a transformative win. … The plan was to draw down engine and transmission plants and permanently replace them with low-wage battery jobs. We had a different plan. And our plan is winning at GM, and we expect it to win at Ford and Stellantis as well.”
The union has made progress on its wage demands and, Fain says, and is “fighting like hell” to improve retirement security for post-2007 hires and to end the two-tier wage system.
“Strikes and the threat of strikes by a unified membership are what delivers. … Our goal is to out-smart and out-organize Corporate America,” said Fain. “We don’t strike for the hell of it. … We know what it’s like to hold a picket sign at 3 a.m.”
REDEMOCRATIZING THE UNION
Auto-worker strikes in the 1930s and 1940s helped create the modern middle class. Over time the union’s leadership calcified and became accustomed to negotiating management-friendly contracts that eroded hard-won victories.
In 2019 the Justice Department described a “culture of corruption” among UAW senior leadership, arguing the “need to transform the unethical, greedy, and self-indulgent behavior … is long overdue.” A federal investigation into the leadership of the union’s national leadership ended with 17 convictions. To prevent this self-dealing from occurring again, UAW members won the right to directly vote for their leaders for the first time. In the first direct election in UAW history, Fain, a militant unionist with a rank-and-file background, won the UAW presidency in March with his allies claiming seats on the union’s executive board.
“What’s happening now within the UAW happened because there was a small group, really small group of devoted reformers — some of whom have been at this so long, they’ve long since retired from their union jobs but are still committed UAW retirees — that didn’t abandon what seemed like a hopeless cause and kept up the agitation for change,” says labor historian Toni Gilpin.
And so when a government investigation launched under the Trump administration, those reformers were there to push for the notion that the answer to this was not a government takeover. Once the government conceded to a direct election, the group [becoming popularly known as UADW (Unite All Workers for Democracy)], continued to organize, to promote the kind of militant leadership that would really represent a new change within the UAW — so they really organized within the rank and file. And through their concerted effort, we saw the election, just very recently, of Shawn Fain.
Something like that seems to happen overnight, seems to happen like in a heartbeat, but it happened because there were some tireless and dedicated folks within the UAW who didn’t give up and who were there when the moment presented itself.
The notion of democratizing the UAW is central to this cause, as well as injecting new energy, new militancy within the union, and rejecting the kind of labor-management cooperation that had been characteristic of the union before and that had brought the union horrid concessionary contracts.
Most of the workers The Indypendent spoke with on the Tappan picket line are non-committal about whether or not they support Fain or the staggered strike approach until after these negotiations come to a close. But Local 3039 President Jeff Purcell is optimistic about the union’s direction.
“They’re fighting for things that we want, things that we need. As long as they’re going to support us, and they’re going to look out for our best interests, they have my support 110%,” said Purcell.
For Purcell, being president of the local is a full-time job for which he is paid. Despite that, he goes into work whenever he is needed; this also helps keep him connected to the needs of the workers. He says that he has noticed an uptick in rank-and-file activity since the raise-free 2019 contract was passed.
“I think that this has been a wake-up call for all the members to see that this fight is real. And it does affect you; you need to be involved; you need to care and pay attention to what’s going on, because all of our futures depend on it. So I think involvement has skyrocketed,” Purcell told The Indy.
Lane Dibler contributed to this report.