Tim Jackson was partly through a car repair Thursday night when he learned that Ford’s Wayne, Michigan factory had been tapped as one of three plants nationally to strike.
“Everybody started yelling,” Jackson recalled as he stood outside the Ford assembly plant on Friday evening while passing cars honked in approval of the United Auto Workers strike.
Spirits were high on the picket line throughout Friday, the opening salvo in the 88-year-old union’s first ever simultaneous strike of Detroit’s “Big Three” auto manufacturers.
The UAW had for weeks telegraphed a potential stoppage at General Motors, Ford and Jeep-maker Stellantis, with chatter in recent days of a limited strike rather than a comprehensive walkout of the 150,000 union members across the United States.
UAW President Shawn Fain described his goal as keeping the companies off balance to maximize bargaining leverage with a targeted strike that could be expanded over time.
But union members were also in the dark about the chosen plants. When Fain ultimately unveiled the picks late Thursday, Wayne was on the list, along with a GM factory in Wentzville, Missouri and a Stellantis facility in Toledo, Ohio.
“It felt good and scary all at the same time,” said Jackson, who sees the demand of a higher hourly wage as key to being able to spend more time with his family instead of working 70 to 80-hour weeks.
While Jackson was hearing the news about Wayne, around 300 miles (480 kilometers) away anticipation was high in Louisville, Kentucky that Ford’s truck plant would be picked.
But Tameka Colon shrugged as she recounted the moment she learned Louisville was not chosen, noting that the Local 862 had been organizing strike logistics for weeks in case it got the call.
“I’m going to trust the process,” she said. “But I was a little disappointed that we did not get chosen because I feel like we are an ideal plant to strike and really make an impact.”
Instead of walking out on strike, Colon worked a 12-hour shift through the night before joining about 40 other Local 862 members as they bussed five hours to Michigan for a UAW rally in downtown Detroit headlined by Fain and progressive Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont.
“We came off the bus chanting,” said Colon as she held printouts of union chants, some highlighted in yellow.
“We’ve got the mojo and it spreads like wildfire,” Colon said. “People need to see that and the companies need to see that.”
Polls suggest broad public support for the union, especially in comparison with CEOs from the three companies, who each make eight-figure salaries.
But Sofus Nielson, who has worked at Ford for 29 years, does not expect the companies to bow quickly.
“They’re gonna try to make people feel it and hurt,” he said, describing Friday’s cheer as a reflection of the novelty of the strike.
But Nielson expects a “different attitude” in three weeks if workers are still on the picket line, receiving just $500 weekly in strike pay instead of normal wages.
The strike comes as an auto industry transition to electric vehicles gathers momentum. All three of the companies are investing billions of dollars to build new factories and reboot existing sites for the electric era.
Uncertainty about what the change means for auto workers has been a focal point for Fain echoed by some officials at union locals.
But rank-and-file workers told AFP on Friday that their priority in the strike was winning better wages and benefits, especially for younger colleagues, who can be paid just $15 or $17 an hour in a “temporary” status that can drag on for years.
Workers also expressed disgust at a “tier” system in which junior employees are paid less for the same work and don’t get a pension.
Ramona Jocys, who has worked at Ford for 33 years, was not assigned to strike duty Friday, but came to the picket line in solidarity with fellow UAW members, including her son-in-law, whom she said makes only half her salary.
“I’m standing right next to my son-in-law who is a part of the tier wage, because he deserves to make good money to feed his family,” she said.
“And I’m going to retire soon, but he’s gonna carry on. And it’s important that we do what we have to do now to ensure the survival of our families.”