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Autoworkers hope new Big 3 contracts will secure their place in middle class


Autoworkers at the Big Three used to set the gold standard for the middle class, but that hasn't been true for a long time. Now the question is, can the record contracts that have emerged from the auto strike actually turn things around? NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: In early October, I met Jim Cooper on the picket line outside the Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio. He was feeling good about what the UAW had achieved by that point, including far more in raises than he'd seen in his ten years on the production line. But he was holding out for more.

JIM COOPER: It's a good time for unions to make a push to fight for the middle class because I think without stuff like this, there's not going to be a middle class in America much longer.

HSU: Cooper told me higher wages at the auto plant will drive up wages at suppliers and other employers nearby, and that could mean a lot for Toledo.

COOPER: It's the Midwest. It's been kind of a depressed area. But whatever is good for us is going to be good for everyone here.

HSU: When I caught up with him by phone after the strike was over, he told me he originally took the job at Stellantis for the benefits and the overtime. He started at less than $16 an hour and slowly worked his way up to the top wage, almost $32 an hour. And with overtime...

COOPER: Yeah, I felt like I was finally, like, middle class, I mean, if I'm working a full week and then picking up, like, a Saturday.

HSU: He and his wife own their house, a 1,200-square-foot ranch. His three sons share a room. His daughter has her own. With his income, his wife was able to quit her job and spend more time with the kids. She's been running the PTA and band boosters at their schools.

COOPER: And this is all stuff that working at the plant has given us.

HSU: But life has been far from easy.

COOPER: Inflation went crazy the last of years. I mean, it's been like a give and take. Like, I feel like we're had for a while, and then we would start to fade back.

HSU: Now, if the new contract is ratified, Cooper's wage will rise to just over $40 an hour by 2027. But he might wind up working less. Under the contract, his plant will be moving from 10-hour shifts to eight-hour shifts.

COOPER: So we will be losing, like, two hours of overtime a day.

HSU: And while $40 an hour may sound like a lot, when adjusted for inflation, it's actually what autoworkers were making 20 years ago before concessions cut auto wages in half. In other words, even with historic raises, autoworkers will have to wait another four years to catch up to where they were. Charley Ballard, a longtime economist at Michigan State, understands why there's frustration. For decades, he says, autoworkers at the Big Three weren't just getting by. They earned enough to own nice cars and homes, a cottage at the lake.

CHARLEY BALLARD: That was real. There was a generation of people who graduated from Lansing Sexton High School who almost literally walked across the street to upper-middle-class wages and benefits.

HSU: Benefits for life, the high cost of which sent two of the Big Three into bankruptcy. The golden era ended right before the near-collapse of the auto industry in the 2008 financial crisis. And since, life has been very different for autoworkers. Starting wages have been closer to what you can make at Target. Workers do have 401(k)s but no retiree health care, something Marcelina Pedraza, a Ford electrician, worries about.

MARCELINA PEDRAZA: Because a lot of folks know Medicare is not enough.

HSU: Still, as a single mom, she says the contract will give her and her daughter a bit more of a safety net.

PEDRAZA: I'll be able to pay off some credit card debt. That's for sure. I'll be able to do some home improvement projects that I've been putting off.

HSU: As for Jim Cooper, he says the extra money will allow him to take his family to Disney, something they've been wanting to do. But it might still be a while.

COOPER: Probably not next year, maybe 2025.

HSU: And, of course, workers still need to ratify the contract. Voting continues into next week. Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.