“Our members are willing to do whatever it takes” says UAW leader

As the United Auto Workers carry out a militant contract campaign, UAW Local 230 President reflects on the current moment and what must change

September 01, 2023 by Natalia Marques
The UAW has set the tone for these negotiations with a set of militant demands that address the unsupportable conditions US workers (Photo: UAW via Twitter)

Workers and leaders at the United Auto Workers (UAW) are currently battling the three largest automakers in the US (General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis) in a massive campaign to negotiate the master contract for 144,000 “Big Three” auto workers. Their contract is set to expire on September 14, if no agreement is reached before then, workers will go on strike

The UAW has set the tone for these negotiations with a set of militant demands that address the unsupportable conditions US workers, particularly industrial workers, have endured following neoliberal deindustrialization. These demands include reducing the workweek to 32-hours, addressing precarity by making all temporary workers permanent and ending tiers in the workplace, tying wage raises to inflation, and ending the auto plant closures that have plagued auto workers since manufacturers began moving production to the Global South.

Peoples Dispatch spoke to Jesse Ramirez, who is in his third term as President of UAW Local 230. Ramirez has been in UAW leadership for over 20 years, and spoke about his insights to contract negotiations and provided a broader analysis of where the UAW stands today.

Peoples Dispatch: What are the primary issues at stake in this round of contract negotiations for workers? 

Jesse Ramirez: When we went through our bankruptcies [referring to concessions UAW gave to automakers in the wake of the 2009 recession], we gave up raises. We traditionally used to get raises every year. And we went from a raise to a bonus structure. So that basically puts it down to where our members aren’t making comparable wages to the rest of the nation.

We used to be the industry standard when it came to contract negotiations and raises. Our wages were among the highest in all the industries, and we’re pretty much down towards the bottom again, which is pretty disheartening to our members. They really would like to see a double digit increase in their raises. 

COLA, which is the cost of living [adjustment], that’s another major thing that was given up during our bankruptcies. I think the biggest issue our members have is that we gave up so much over the years to make this company successful and through concessions. And although the company has been successful, they haven’t paid the employees back for that.

Pensions is another big topic at our plant because we have about three quarters of our members who do not receive a pension. And that used to be one of the biggest draws to our industry, or working here at our plant, was that you received a pension. 

Now that pensions have gone away, a 401k just isn’t cutting it anymore because it’s based off the stock market. With the stock market going up or down, by the time you retire, you could have lost half of your 401k, whereas pensions don’t necessarily go away as the stock market does.

Another big thing too… is we have a tier system. We actually have three tiers in our building, and that tier system has divided our members. We have members who receive full pay, a pension. We have another group of members who receive full pay but no pension. And then we have another group that receives a quarter of the pay, but they receive no pension as well. So we’re divided by tiers, and I know our President Fain has said he wanted to eliminate tiers. That is a big, big subject here as well, to get rid of these tiers that make everybody equal across the nation when it comes to Stellantis.

Historically, the UAW has always set precedents on their contracts and their talks. They were so powerful at one time that all of the industry would look at the UAW contracts and it would set the standard for not just union shops, but nonunion shops as well, to keep pay in the whole nation, pretty much on pace with inflation, on pace with the economy.

Unfortunately, over the years… We’ve had leaders that saw other ways of taking care of the company before the members. And when you do that, when you take care of the company before the members, unfortunately, it turns into where you get members who can’t buy the company’s product.

So if the UAW wages are a fair wage, a living wage or higher, the warehouse down the street refuses to pay minimum wage or only wants to pay a minimum wage, their employees [start] asking for a little bit more. [Nonunion warehouses] might keep their standards a little bit higher just to keep the unions out, which increases everybody’s wages.

I mean, our supervisors, believe it or not, even enjoy seeing us get these raises, because they [also] get raises. Now, if we didn’t fight for these raises or benefits, the company would not be giving them to their salaried management team as well. So I think a win for the UAW is a win for everybody across the nation.

PD: Can you talk about some of the ways that the changes in the auto industry have affected workers, especially now with the advent of electric vehicles?

JR: Our local has been around since 1937. We started in Los Angeles, California, as an assembly plant for Chrysler. Back in the mid seventies, the assembly plant closed along with GM’s plants and Ford’s assembly plants. Everybody pretty much closed all of their plants in LA. 

Our parts division stayed and that’s where our local has continued. We originated as an assembly plant, but now, over the years, since 1937, we lost all of our assembly plants and we are now just a parts distribution center, which is Mopar [a PDC of Stellantis].

When it comes to EVs, and now the electrification of vehicles in our industry, we see a change coming, just like the assembly plants are going to see a change. And that all has to do with the combustion engine. Once you switch over to EVs, you actually lose a lot of your unique parts that you had.

You no longer have oil filters, air filters. You don’t have all the fluids that the vehicle normally has. You lose a lot of the motors, transmissions, the braking system is a little bit different. EVs do not go through brake pads like a traditional car. We will see a decrease in parts, and we’ll see parts lasting a lot longer.

When it comes to technology, the assembly plants have been dealing with robotics for years. And as more and more of our plants are being modernized and built, you’re seeing plants that used to have 8,000 employees going down to 2,000 employees because of technology and robots. Those will be some major challenges for us as well, and I think they will have to be addressed in the national agreement.

We need to make sure that as technology comes into the plants, that the company has to start to realize that if you do not have employees in the plants working, you don’t have employees out there buying the parts. You don’t have employees that are supporting families that are then going to buy products.

As our country and our nation, as the world goes autonomous, goes to AI, goes to where everything’s done by technology, there comes a point where, who’s going to have the jobs to actually buy our own product? We’re already, as members, getting priced out of most of our vehicles. Some of our luxury divisions, [such as] the Maserati, we couldn’t touch. They’re from USD 200,000 to 300,000 and up. Some of our Jeeps are about USD 114,000 for the SUVs. With our wages not increasing over the years as they should have, it’s starting to price our own members out. And when you start to add robotics and autonomous robots and AI in the equation, without the actual worker there, you start to lose business.

The company has to understand, although you can automate almost anything in a plant now, by doing that, you’re hurting their bottom line because you’re going to be taking away from the people that are crucial to buying the product and supporting the company. 

PD: Can you speak to the current moment in the labor movement, with prominent labor organizing campaigns such as the UPS Teamsters contract campaign and the Hollywood strikes making headlines each day?

JR: I think from just from my experience, being a member for over 25 years, being on leadership for over two decades, I see right now, at least for the UAW and the labor movement, this to me is almost kind of like a revolution.

You’re seeing all these historic deals when it comes to union jobs and their members. I think it’s a change, a shift right now, that you’re seeing labor taking control and getting what’s fair and what’s right for the employees.

What I definitely am seeing now, though, is every union is starting to restrategize. We’ve gotten used to just doing the same thing because it’s been done for 30 years. I brought it up at our summer school for Region 6 that typically when we go on strike, [since] we’re a smaller [parts distribution center] and we’re not in a visible area, we’re in a very, very industrialized area… most of the public would have no clue we were on strike other than you would see it in the news, but you wouldn’t see it here locally. Yes, we would hit the company’s bottom line, because our facility produces upwards of USD 2 to 3 million a day. So that’s revenue they’re losing every day from us, stopping trucks slowing the product down.

But a strategy we were looking at here locally was not only hitting them at the assembly plants, hitting them at the PDCs, but going down to the dealerships. As far as I can remember, I don’t remember picketing a dealership.

And part of my strategy is to hit these dealers, using all of our members in Region 6 to go to these dealers, and picket so that the public can see in every single area that the company is profiting, and that we want a fair contract. From the historic win with UPS, I see this as our time to show that the UAW is strong and that our members are willing to do whatever it takes to get a fair and good contract for our members for years to come.