Nonunion workers are playing a big role in the autoworkers’ strike.

Nonunion workers are playing a big role in the autoworkers' strike.

The thousands of people who work for Toyota in Kentucky, Mercedes-Benz in Alabama or Tesla in Texas are not technically included in the high-stakes negotiations taking place between labor and management in and around Detroit.

But his presence is immense.

Executives at Ford Motor, General Motors and Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, vilify non-union automakers, many of which are in the South, as a competitive threat that could lead to larger pay increases for striking workers, more generous benefits and Makes it impossible to meet demands. Better working conditions.

“Toyota, Honda, Tesla and others are loving this strike because they know the longer it goes on, the better off they are,” Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor, said in Michigan last week. “They’ll win, and we’ll all lose.”

The United Automobile Workers union sees such statements as an attempt to alienate workers from each other. It views the strikes, entering their sixth week, as a first step toward better wages not only for UAW members but also for non-union workers it plans to hire in the future.

“We will not be used in this sham competition,” UAW President Sean Fenn said Friday, reacting to Mr. Ford’s speech. He added, “Nonunion autoworkers are not the enemy. They are our future Sangh Parivar.

UAW President Shawn Fenn views non-union workers as potential future union members.Credit…Brittany Greyson for The New York Times

The wage gap between union and nonunion factories has long been a point of contention. Some industry officials have argued that high union wages were a major reason GM and Chrysler resorted to bankruptcy after the 2008 financial crisis.

Union leaders and progressive lawmakers have emphasized that the growth of non-union manufacturing, mostly in the South but also in the Midwest and West, has helped erode the middle class over the past several decades.

Experienced union autoworkers earn more than production workers who are not represented by unions. They often interfere more with their schedules and work overtime.

But starting wages at Ford, GM and Stellantis factories may be lower than at non-union factories. And wages for non-union workers in Southern auto plants go higher because the cost of living there is lower than in the Midwest.

Even the geographic division between union and nonunion plant is not always as clear as it may seem. Toyota and Honda have plants in the South, where unions are weak, but they also have factories in Ohio and Indiana, where unions are strong. And GM and Ford hold union operations in Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas.

The debate about auto industry wages has become more urgent as automakers invest billions to build factories that make batteries for electric cars. Most of those factories are being built in Southern states like Georgia and Tennessee, where local laws make it more difficult for unions to organize factories.

“A good agreement with the Detroit Three would be powerful because it gives union organizers a better argument for joining the union,” said Ian Greer, a Cornell research professor who studies the impact of electric vehicles on labor.

Even with a union wage of about $32 an hour from his job assembling chassis at a Ford factory in Chicago, Shatan Lyke said he didn’t have it easy. She is the sole breadwinner for three children and worries about how she will buy a prom dress for her eldest child.

Ms Lyke, who is on strike, said she was glad the union was behind her. “You have someone outside fighting for you,” he said.

But Ms Lyke, 37, is doing a better job than others doing similar work in the South. At a Nissan factory in Canton, Miss., Morris Mock, 49, makes about $1 less an hour than Ms. Lyke, even with more than 20 years of experience, he said.

An effort to unionize Nissan in 2017 failed to win enough support from workers. That means Mr. Mock, one of the people leading the union campaign, will not directly benefit from the contracts the UAW makes with automakers. But he said he’s glad the union is fighting to protect wages as the industry switches to electric vehicles.

“The market is going to change,” Mr. Mock said. “I’m glad they understand we must put workers first.”

Government statistics suggest wide regional pay differences. According to the Census Bureau survey, Michigan autoworkers earn 22 percent more than production workers in Tennessee, 23 percent more than workers in South Carolina and 28 percent more than workers in Alabama. Those figures include people who work for suppliers, where wages are often lower than in the factories that assemble vehicles.

Some labor experts said the big difference between union and nonunion autoworkers has less to do with pay and more to do with things like mandatory overtime and shift schedules. Union workers have more say in those matters.

The auto industry has been heading south for decades due to low costs, weak unions and local government incentives. Foreign automakers often choose sites in the South when establishing factories in the United States. BMW and Volvo cars have factories in South Carolina; Mercedes and Hyundai in Alabama; Toyota in Kentucky; And Volkswagen in Tennessee.

Most foreign automakers do not disclose how much they pay their employees. Volkswagen, an exception, said the starting wage for hourly production workers at its factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was $21.10. The company said experienced employees earn more than $29.

Foreign automakers concentrated in the South sometimes pay their American workers more than Ford, GM and Stellantis, according to a study by EY for Autos Drive America, the industry association representing Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes and others.

The average starting wage for foreign automakers was $19 an hour, which is higher than the $17 starting wage for UAW members, the survey said. But the average maximum wage for foreign automakers was $28, compared with $32 for UAW members under the existing contract.

A Nissan spokesman declined to say how much the company pays its U.S. workers, but he said the average Autos Drive America survey is higher than reported.

Tesla, which is based in Texas and has factories there and in Buffalo; Fremont, California; and Sparks, Nev., does not disclose how much it pays its workers, but Detroit automakers say it is less than their wages.

Ford has said its labor costs, including benefits and bonuses, are 40 percent higher per employee than Tesla. That figure does not include stock awards that at least some Tesla employees receive. On Tesla’s website, a job posting for a production associate pays $20 to $23 an hour.

Even though autoworker pay in Alabama or Mississippi is lower than Michigan or Illinois, it is often higher than what employers in other industries pay in those locations.

Labor representatives say working conditions are often a bigger issue than pay.

In February, Emily Erickson of the University of Warwick in England and Bernice Herbert of Jackson State University conducted research in Vance, Ala., near Tuscaloosa. published a survey of 211 workers in a Mercedes factory in 1997.

Workers reported they earn an average of $27 an hour at Mercedes, the highest for the region. But they said they were forced to work overtime or have their work schedules changed without notice. Nearly half worked more than 50 hours a week. The study also found that white workers earn an average of $3 more per hour than black workers.

Mercedes denies that it discriminates. “Our pay structure is the same for all team members regardless of race, age or ethnic origin and our pay progression is based on seniority,” the company said in a statement.

It said the company employed 6,000 people in Alabama, which suggests the study may have under-sampled workers. “We do not agree with its findings,” Mercedes said.

The wage gap between the South and the North is sure to widen when Ford, GM and Stellantis agree to new contracts with the UAW. The union is demanding a 40 percent increase over four years. Ford, GM and Stellantis have already offered increases of 23 percent and could be even higher.

Unions have recently made some progress in the South. Employees at Blue Bird, which makes school buses in Georgia, voted to join the United Steelworkers in May and are negotiating a contract. Workers at ZF, a maker of axles for Mercedes in Alabama, ended a month-long strike last week after the German company agreed to raise the top hourly wage to $23.

Labor leaders say they have already been flooded with calls from workers at Toyota, Volkswagen and Hyundai who have expressed interest in organizing unions. Volkswagen workers voted not to join a union in 2019, but the mood may be different this time.

“These workers will say, ‘Look what the UAW did to these workers at GM, Ford and Stellantis,'” said Tim Smith, director of UAW Region 8, which includes the entire Southeast.

“We’ve got organizers out there on the ground right now,” he said. “We’re starting to make our move.”

ben castleman And bob chiarito Contributed to the reporting.

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