Buffalo-area UAW workers ready to strike if called

Autoworkers at three Buffalo-area plants will learn this morning whether they will join the United Auto Workers strike.

UAW President Shawn Fain is expected to announce more locals that will be added to the walkout if the union isn’t satisfied with progress in contract talks by then.

About 12,700 UAW members are on strike at three plants in the Midwest, one each of General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis.

The UAW has about 3,000 members working at three plants in the Buffalo area: GM’s two facilities in Lockport and the Town of Tonawanda, and Ford’s stamping plant in Hamburg.

UAW Local 774

UAW Local 774 assembler Julianna Vega, an assembler and UAW Local 774 member, at a Wednesday rally. (Joseph Cooke/Buffalo News)

Local union leaders say they are ready to walk out if called upon.

“We’ve dotted our i’s, crossed our t’s, just getting ready if Tonawanda gets picked to be on strike,” said Teddy Maldonado, president of UAW Local 774, which represents 753 hourly workers at the GM Tonawanda engine plant.

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Just across the border, Unifor, which represents autoworkers in Canada, reached a tentative agreement with Ford. The deal averted the threat of a strike that would have had a ripple effect on the Hamburg stamping plant; the Route 5 facility ships a large percentage of the parts it produces to Ford’s assembly plant in Oakville, Ont.

“We believe that this agreement will solidify the foundations on which we will continue to bargain gains for generations of autoworkers in Canada,” said Lana Payne, Unifor’s national president, in a statement.

Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Buffalo, said the Unifor-Ford deal was good news.

“Hopefully, that can spur on a deal between UAW and Ford here in the USA,” Wheaton said.

Negotiations continued between the UAW and the Detroit Three automakers.

The UAW has kept its plans under wraps, in order to keep the automakers guessing about where the strike may spread. The strategy also helps the UAW preserve its $825 million strike fund, by putting some workers on the picket line but not all 146,000 at the Detroit Three plants at once.

In the meantime, UAW members at the Buffalo-area plants continue to work their regular shifts under expired contracts and earn their paychecks. They are also prepared in case they get the word from the UAW to walk off the job.

Maldonado said UAW members at the Tonawanda engine plant have been assigned gates to picket in the event of a strike. And the union has stockpiled supplies for workers to stay warm as the temperature drops.

“We have burn barrels,” Maldonado said. “We have wood. We’re ready to go if we get drawn.”

UAW Region 9 servicing representative James Lakeman speaks at a rally outside UAW Local 774’s hall.

The local members have held rallies and engaged in “practice picketing” to demonstrate their support for the strike.

“I think it would be better if all of us had went out,” said Barbara Green, a machine repair journeywoman at the Tonawanda plant and UAW 774 member. “But if they’re doing what they need to do, then that’s fine, too.”

Green, a Michigan native, has worked for GM since 1978. She has been employed at the Tonawanda plant since 2018, and has been through contract struggles before.

“It’s good that we are trying to get together and fight for what we believe in,” Green said.

“If the CEO [Mary Barra] can get $30 million for an income, for what we do every day, something is kind of strange.”

Green was asked about the financial sacrifices members would make in a strike.

“We’re doing that now,” she said. “We get laid off here and there, depending on the supply or shipment they need. People might or might not buy cars. It all depends on other people’s finances if we’re going to be working.”

Louie Tomassi, a member of UAW Local 897, is a team leader in shipping and receiving at the Ford plant in Hamburg. He compared the partial strike underway to what happened in 2019, when workers at GM were on strike, but those at Ford were not.

Mike Grimmer

UAW Local 774 chairman Mike Grimmer speaks at a rally outside the union hall. 

“I supported [Local] 774 when they were out here four years ago,” he said. “If we have to go out, we’re ready to stand up and go out.”

The talks appear to have progressed only a little since the strikes began on Sept. 15. On Wednesday, the UAW said it was reviewing a new offer from Stellantis but declined to provide details.

The union is seeking a 40% increase in wages over four years, saying the pay of the automakers’ chief executives rose by roughly that much over the previous four years. The companies have offered raises of just over 20%.

The union also wants more workers to qualify for pension plans, company-paid health care for retirees, shorter working hours and other improvements. And the UAW is seeking an end to a practice under which new hires are paid about $17 an hour – a bit more than half the top union wage of $32 an hour.

On Wednesday, GM’s second-highest-ranking executive, its president, Mark Reuss, sought to rebut Fain’s criticisms in an opinion essay in the Detroit Free Press.

Reuss said GM had offered to increase wages 20% over the next four years, which would lift the top wage to more than $39 an hour, or about $82,000 a year, based on a 40-hour workweek. Entry-level workers now earning $17 an hour would reach $39 an hour after four years.

“UAW leadership claims GM pays its team members ‘poverty’ wages,’ ” Reuss wrote. “This is simply not true.”

While GM is making near-record profits – it made almost $10 billion in 2022 – Reuss said the company was investing heavily to make the transition to electric vehicles, including $11 billion this year. He added that the company could not afford to pay what the UAW was seeking if it wanted to remain competitive and healthy.

At a rally outside the Local 774 union hall on Wednesday, speakers called on the automakers to share their prosperity with the workers. They recalled the sacrifices the UAW made 15 years ago when the auto industry was in peril during the Great Recession and GM filed for bankruptcy.

UAW Local 774 Rally

UAW Local 774 sign hangs from a table during a rally at the UAW Local 774 Union Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.

“We’re asking for things we all had almost 20 years ago, and (the automakers) want to villainize all of us because we just want a piece of the American dream we had,” said Mike Grimmer, shop chairman for UAW 774.

James Lakeman, UAW Region 9 servicing representative, gestured to the sprawling GM facility across the parking lot.

“There’s 12,000 people that used to work in this complex,” Lakeman said. “Now we’re fighting for our survival in this area.”

News wire services contributed to this report.

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