For John Ryan Bishop, a new UAW contract is about his worries, at age 35, that he’ll be in a wheelchair by age 50 from the pain of work on the assembly line.
In seven years at two General Motors assembly plants, he has done tens of thousands of repetitive tasks such as installing electrical connections in wheel wells, hoods, fenders and other jobs.
“I still have aches through my tendons and my shoulders” from tasks he no longer performs, Bishop said. “You’ll find as you switch jobs, you might not hurt as much in those same areas, but when I went to the fender line, then my hip and knee started hurting.”
For that reason, as contracts between the UAW and Detroit’s automakers move toward expiration on Sept. 14, Bishop is among workers adamant about protecting health care benefits and job rotation “so people aren’t stuck on the tough jobs all the time.”
As the union and carmakers work on a new contract, the rank and file are clear about the concerns that affect their daily lives.
They want the UAW to protect wages and benefits, seek a better work-life balance, establish a path for temporary employees to go permanent and mitigate job injuries, among other things.
Ford job security
Jeff “Big Daddy” Adams is a material handler at the Lima Engine Plant in Lima, Ohio, who delivers parts to the assembly line that builds engines for the Ford F-150, Lincoln Continental and others. He said workers mostly want job security more than a big pay boost. A 3% cost of living raise to “hold the line” and maintain a current standard of living would suffice for Adams so long as he keeps his job.
“My wife has got a lot of health issues with blood disorders. She has had 20 blood clots, so we’re thankful for our health benefits,” said Adams, who has worked at Ford for two decades. “Our wages are stagnant.”
Adams, who serves as a sergeant of arms for UAW Local 1219, does advocate for higher benefits for UAW retirees, which includes his father — a “dirty cleaner” who handled industry factory cleaning for Ford in Indianapolis.
But he said so far this bargaining season has seemed oddly quiet.
“It’s almost eerie,” said Adams. “Regular workers are working paycheck to paycheck and worried about getting laid off.”
He said UAW members are building the food pantry at the local union hall with nonperishables and toiletries in preparation for a strike, noting that no one can survive on $250 a week strike pay for long.
“Bill Ford actually said the UAW ‘saved us in our darkest hour.’ We did. We gave up cost of living increases and other things,” Adams said. “He said when they became profitable again, he would reward the workers.”
And even though Adams, 42, said he’d like a raise, he insisted, “I would rather see the lower people, the temporary workers, be brought up to full time. Seeing some of my brothers or sisters struggle breaks my heart. They’re working two jobs and worried about getting laid off.”
Indeed, changing policy for temporary part-time workers is a top issue for many of his co-workers, Adams said.
“People who work for Ford shouldn’t have to work two or three jobs to pay their bills,” said Adams. “A lot of non-Detroit Three companies pay $23 or $24 an hour to keep the union out. To me, a true temp worker is May to Labor Day, summertime. Not two or three or four years.”
‘Always under attack’
“We have really good benefits, but they’re always under attack,” said Sean Crawford, a UAW member who works at GM’s Flint, Mich., Assembly plant. “The job is really hard on your body and it doesn’t matter how hard you work out or take supplements, the repetitive movements hurt you.”
Crawford started at GM in his 20s and has worked at three GM plants. He transferred to Flint from Detroit-Hamtramck in February as part of GM’s plans to idle Detroit-Hamtramck in January 2020. There, he was a metal finisher and robot cell operator. Now he works as a material driver transporting truck parts around the Flint plant.
At 37, Crawford said he has arthritis in both hands, shoulder injuries and a bum elbow. He wants options. His hope is that the UAW will bring back some of the jobs that have been outsourced in recent years.
“Being a janitor is a lot less hard on your body than working on the assembly line,” said Crawford. “But now you can’t go into those jobs because they’re outsourced to a different company. The parts sequencing jobs, those used to be traditional UAW jobs at D-Ham and Orion (Mich.), those have been outsourced.”
Crawford said outsourcing is a way to “divide and conquer the union.”
“If we don’t have equality in the jobs, it’s a lot easier to divide and conquer the plants,” said Crawford. When jobs are outsourced, he said, “it puts downward pressure on everyone’s wages. ‘If we did it over here, we can do it over there.’ It’s whipsawing.”
Crawford worries he will get job-locked as he ages, with fewer options for jobs that aren’t as physically demanding available to him.
“I’d love to be able to move onto something else someday, but if you have a wife like I do and we’re trying to have kids, you need the benefits,” said Crawford. “I just deal with it. I take really good care of myself and, hopefully, I’ll get a better job in the future.”
Skeptic of FCA
Brian Keller, a 20-year veteran of what is now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, wants a better contract than workers saw in 2015, but he’s skeptical about the outcome of this year’s talks.
Health care is a big concern for the Mount Clemens, Mich., man with a wife and two children. He works at FCA’s Mopar Sherwood distribution center in Warren, Mich.
“There’s a lot of people who get hurt in the plants. Health care is vital to everybody,” Keller said, noting that he would vote no on a contract that does not protect the current benefit level or costs workers more. “If you’re making me pay more for my health coverage, basically that’s taking away from any wage increases we get in the contract. We’re not gaining anything.”
Keller considers himself fortunate compared with some of his co-workers. He’s part of the top tier of workers _ they have more years in with the company _ who get full benefits and better pay, but he said those divisions should end for everyone at FCA.
Keller wants temporary workers, for instance, to become full time and permanent after 90 days. He wants working conditions to improve, saying that many facilities lack adequate heating and cooling and bathrooms should be updated. So-called alternative work schedules _ multiple 10-hour shifts, for instance _ should be eliminated.
Wages, too, should increase, he said, noting that the prices of the vehicles workers make have outpaced wages, which he called stagnant.
Striking a concern that the union has emphasized, Keller noted that workers sacrificed for the companies during their darkest days during the 2009 bankruptcies at FCA and GM.
But he is also skeptical of the bargaining process. The corruption scandal that has ensnared the UAW, FCA and now GM raises serious concerns for Keller. He was one of the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against FCA and the UAW over the accusations of collusion between then-FCA and UAW officials related to bargaining. The federal court case was dismissed but has been appealed.
The UAW said ultimately it’s members who are the final authority on the contract.
Despite his concerns, Keller sounds positive about his own job driving a stacker, which is similar to a forklift, to pick parts for distribution.
“I love the job, I don’t like the treatment. I don’t like the politics. I don’t like the fact of how they run the business. Because management runs the business and if they design the process, and we don’t meet our goals and numbers and the company starts losing money, it’s us, the laborers that take the hit financially,” Keller said.
Temps’ long wait
One temporary worker at a GM plant, a materials driver, spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing he could be fired for speaking to the media.
“I only work on Saturdays and I get the full health care benefits. It’s not the same as a permanent person gets, but it’s no cost out of my pocket and a $2,000 deductible,” said the worker. “It’s the reason I became a temp, in the hopes of becoming a permanent.”
The 36-year-old man makes $15.75 an hour. He has a full-time other job in sales at a local beverage company. There, he makes $50,000 a year, but he puts a lot of mileage on his car and he had been paying $420 a month to carry insurance for his family, with a $2,700 deductible.
If GM hired him, his hourly wage would go up to $22 an hour, he said, which is less than his salary at his current job. But better health care benefits and less wear and tear on his car would make it worth it, he said.
Still, he knows getting hired permanently is “a tall order.” Many temporary workers have to wait three or more years to be hired. He does not want to be pushing 40 and hiring into a new company at a lower wage.
“I really hope that the union has our back and will do what they say they’re going to do as far as negotiating a contract where they take us all in as permanent,” said the man. “But, when GM closed those four plants, I feel they’re using those as a bargaining chip to get what they want.”
Bishop, the GM worker, said that besides the physical stress of the assembly line, he faced strain to his mental health from doing a monotonous task in a windowless plant working long, often odd hours.
“I was on antidepressants for a short stint when I worked at Orion, I definitely was depressed,” said Bishop, who was working from 5:30 p.m.-5:30 a.m. “I was racing the sun home, you always want to get home before the sun is up.”
Bishop slept all day, got up in the late afternoon to repeat the routine.
“When you’re on the line, it’s the perfect environment for rumination over whatever’s on your mind. You’re doing the same task over and over,” said Bishop. “I remember thinking at times, ‘if I put another bolt in, I’ll go insane.’ “