Workers at the "Big Three" auto manufacturers went on strike Friday in a first-ever coordinated action to demand pay raises, winning strong support from President Joe Biden whose pro-union stand is crucial to his 2024 re-election hopes.
A walkout, accompanied by rowdy honking and cheering outside a Detroit-area Ford plant, followed a failed last-minute push by General Motors, Ford and Stellantis to produce an agreement before the deadline late Thursday.
Only about 12,700 of the 150,000 workers represented by the UAW are on strike. However, the decision by the rival companies' employees to coordinate sent a powerful message in their battle for pay increases of 40 percent.
The disruption in the crucial sector, involving iconic brands like Jeep, threatens the US economy in a period of strong growth and inflationary pressure. In a first sign of ripple effects from the strikes, Ford said it was temporarily laying off 600 workers in jobs "directly impacted" by the striking workers walking out.
Biden, who has cast himself as a major trade unions supporter, gave his backing to the strikers, saying he understood their "frustration."
Speaking on live TV from the White House, Biden said workers had not been able to benefit from enormous corporate profits, which exceeded $20 billion for the three giants in just the first half of 2023.
"The companies have made some significant offers but I believe they should go further to ensure that record corporate profits mean record contracts for the UAW."
He said he was sending two representatives to Detroit to help with negotiations.
The powerful UAW has so far refrained from joining other leading unions in endorsing Biden's 2024 re-election bid.
Underlining the unions' political clout, leftist Senator Bernie Sanders and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer addressed a crowd of strikers late Friday.
"This is the richest country in the history of the world and families in this country and families in the auto industry should not have to live under this kind of stress," Sanders said.
- Threat to expand strike -
UAW President Shawn Fain said shortly before the strike took effect that "tonight, for the first time in our history, we will strike all three of the Big Three at once."
Fain said the union would strike at one plant at each company: a GM factory in Wentzville, Missouri; a Stellantis facility in Toledo, Ohio; and a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, but only in the final assembly and paint operations.
"Tomorrow, we expect to be at the bargaining table. All three companies have received a comprehensive counteroffer from our union, and we await their response," Fain said.
"They're starting it off right," said Rachel Judd, who joined the post-midnight rally in Wayne. Judd works at Ford's neighboring facility in Livonia.
"If negotiations don't keep moving forward, more plants will be added," she said.
- Seeking big pay rise -
Many hourly workers say the auto giants must produce significantly better packages to make up for what they call meager wages and benefit cuts after the 2008 financial crisis, when both GM and Chrysler, now part of Stellantis, underwent bankruptcy reorganizations.
"This company has been making money off of us for years," said Paul Sievert, who has worked at Ford's Wayne plant for 29 years. "I think it's time that we got back."
Sticking points also include raising pay and benefits for junior employees to match the level of more seasoned workers, who currently make a top rate of around $32 an hour.
General Motors upped its offer Thursday, lifting a proposed wage increase to 20 percent. The company had previously proposed an 18 percent rise, according to the UAW.
In a statement Friday, GM said it would "continue to bargain in good faith with the union to reach an agreement as quickly as possible."
On the picket line outside the Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, Sofus Nielson, who has worked there for 15 years, said starting salaries were no longer viable.
"There's no future for people that are starting families or young kids or people that have one kid that come in here, starting off $16 an hour," he said.