UAW strike spares WNY plants – for now

The United Auto Workers’ landmark strike against all three Detroit automakers has spared Buffalo Niagara’s three auto plants for now.

But the reprieve may not last long.

“It’s going to hit Western New York fairly quickly,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of Western New York labor and environmental programs for the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. “It’s got everybody on edge.”

About 13,000 U.S. autoworkers stopped making vehicles and went on strike at three Midwest production plants Friday after their leaders couldn’t bridge a giant gap between union demands in contract talks and what Detroit’s three automakers are willing to pay.

Members of the United Auto Workers union began picketing at a General Motors Co. assembly plant in Wentzville, Mo., a Ford Motor Co. factory in Wayne, Mich., near Detroit, and a Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.

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It was the first time in the union’s 88-year history that it walked out on all three companies simultaneously as four-year contracts with the companies expired at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.

“Tonight, for the first time in our history, we will strike all three of the Big Three at once,” UAW President Shawn Fain said in a Facebook Live address Thursday night, just before the deadline. “And if we need to go all out, we will. Everything is on the table.”

As of Friday, 3,000 local autoworkers represented by the UAW are still on the job in Western New York, at the General Motors Co. engine plant in the Town of Tonawanda, GM’s components plant in Lockport, and the Ford Stamping Plant in Hamburg. They’re working under an expired contract that remains in force while talks between GM, Ford and Stellantis continue.

However, union leaders have made clear that the national strike that began at midnight Friday morning can and will be extended to other plants at any time, if the contract negotiations don’t progress. The two sides are still far apart on many issues, including wages and benefits, although the gaps have narrowed in recent weeks and days.

Even more, though, the strike at the three final-assembly plants could start to have a downstream impact on parts production facilities, as the Tonawanda plant – which used to make five-cylinder engines – could supply engines for the Wentzville assembly facility that makes GMC and Chevrolet pickup trucks and vans.

And Ford faces a separate Sept. 18 deadline for its labor talks with the Canadian autoworkers union as well. The two unions deliberately timed the contracts to maximize pressure on the automaker. But if they go on strike across Canada, that would include the Oakville, Ont., assembly plant that the Hamburg operation serves.

“If Ford in Canada goes out on strike, that has an almost immediate impact on the Ford Stamping Plant. Their parts go right to Oakville,” Wheaton said.


United Auto Workers union members striking outside the Wentzville Assembly Plant in Wentzville, Mo., on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. Members of the UAW began a strike Friday at three plants in the Midwest, walking out amid a contract dispute over pay, pensions and work hours at the three Detroit automakers. 

Innovative strategy

There was no indication that the rest of the union’s 146,000 autoworkers would walk off the job yet, or even when the walk-off might expand. That’s because the UAW is trying an innovative strategy with this year’s negotiation, staging selective strikes at targeted plants instead of a blanket action at any single automaker.

That’s a big change from the union’s approach during previous negotiations.

Using its “Stand Up” strike, the UAW targeted a handful of factories to prod company negotiators to raise their offers, which were far lower than union demands of 36% wage increases over four years. GM and Ford offered 20% and Stellantis, formerly Fiat Chrysler, offered 17.5%.

“This strategy will keep the companies guessing. It will give our national negotiators maximum leverage and flexibility in bargaining,” Fain said.

Unionized workers at plants not selected to be part of a strike would continue working under the terms of the expired agreements, the UAW said.


Domonique Hicks holds a picket sign as members of the United Auto Workers strike outside the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on Friday, Sept. 15, 2022. Members of the UAW began a strike Friday at three plants in the Midwest, walking out amid a contract dispute over pay, pensions and work hours at the three Detroit automakers.

Multiple benefits

The strategy has multiple benefits, Wheaton said. First, by “starting out slow,” the limited strike won’t have “an immediate damaging impact to communities” that rely on auto factories for their local economies.

It also limits the economic hardship on a significant number of UAW members, who will be able to continue working – and collecting their regular paychecks – as the targeted walkouts at other facilities continue.

At the same time, he said, while the union’s action “signals the seriousness of their demands at the bargaining table,” the impact on the companies of picketing final-assembly plants “doesn’t do a lot of damage to their bottom line,” at least not at first.

That’s because the downstream facilities that make the various parts for multiple assembly plants are still operating, and those parts can just be stored up until they’re needed.

He added, “It’s the end of the supply chain, which means it’s less disruptive to restart.”

By contrast, he said, “if you close down the Lockport plant and you don’t have parts to ship to the next level, or you don’t have parts from Rochester, then you’re screwing up the assembly plant.”

Selective strikes

The union was also thoughtful in its choice of plants. Not only did they pick one from each company, but they chose large plants with “impact products,” Wheaton said. “They didn’t pick tiny ones. It’s 13,000 people, so it’s 10% of all members.”

The Ford plant that’s on strike employs about 3,300 workers, and it makes Bronco SUVs and Ranger midsize pickup trucks. The Toledo Jeep complex has about 5,800 workers and manufactures the Jeep Wrangler SUV and Gladiator pickup. GM’s Wentzville plant has about 3,600 workers and makes the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado midsize pickups, as well as the GMC Savana and Chevrolet Express full-size vans.

The UAW also didn’t go after the companies’ big cash cows, which are full-size pickup trucks and big SUVs.

“If they had hit the F150 plant, Ford would have a cow,” Wheaton said. “They don’t need any disruptions for their big-money products, but they can absorb a hit for some of their other products.”

Instead, they targeted plants that make vehicles with lower profit margins, said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“They want to give the companies some space without putting them up against the wall,” Masters said. “They’re not putting them right into the corner. You put an animal in the corner and it’s dangerous.”

Industry observers say striking only selected plants also helps the UAW preserve its $825 million strike fund. The UAW will pay striking workers $500 a week, with those payments becoming available on the eighth day of a walkout. The fund would also cover certain benefits, such as medical and prescription drugs.

Shawn Fain

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain at a rally in August. 

Bold demands

Fain has acknowledged that the union’s demands are audacious, but he maintains the automakers are raking in billions and can afford them. He scoffed at company statements that costly settlements would force them to raise vehicle prices, saying labor accounts for only 4% to 5% of vehicle costs.

In addition to general wage increases, the union is seeking restoration of cost-of-living pay raises, an end to varying tiers of wages for factory jobs, a 32-hour week with 40 hours of pay, the restoration of traditional defined-benefit pensions for new hires who now receive only 401(k)-style retirement plans, pension increases and medical benefits for retirees, and other items.

The UAW argues that the companies are well in the black, with $21 billion of combined profits for just the first half of this year.

“We’ve been working hard, trying to reach a deal for economic and social justice for our members,” Fain said.

Not budging

The strikes capped a day of both sides griping that the other had not budged enough from their initial positions.

GM CEO Mary Barra told workers in a letter Thursday that the company is offering historic wage increases and new vehicle commitments at U.S. factories.

Ford CEO Jim Farley said if Ford had agreed to the union’s demands, it would have lost $15 billion during the last decade and gone bankrupt.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Jonathan D. Epstein at (716) 849-4478 or

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