The United Auto Workers, a union representing nearly 150,000 workers employed by General Motors, Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) and Ford, escalated their ongoing strike against the so-called “Big Three” on Friday — one week after launching strikes at three manufacturing plants in Michigan, Ohio and Missouri on Sept. 15.
In a live-streamed update Friday morning, union leadership announced they’d be expanding their strategically staggered strike to 38 parts distribution centers across 20 states, owned by Stellantis and General Motors centers, including the Stellantis depot in Orlando, Florida.
Ford, the other major automaker, was spared from the strike expansion because the union says they’ve made progress with the company in contract talks, gaining concessions such as cost-of-living adjustments and better job mobility for temporary workers.
“As we’ve said for weeks, we're not going to wait around forever for a fair contract at the Big Three,” UAW president Shawn Fain warned Friday morning. “The companies know how to make this right. The public is on our side, and the members of the UAW are ready to stand up.”
While most auto manufacturing factories owned by the Big Three — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis — are based in the Midwest, the Stellantis parts depot in Orlando is one of about 60 Big Three parts distribution centers scattered across 25 states.
The Orlando warehouse, with a workforce of nearly 80 workers represented by the United Auto Workers, is the only location on strike for hundreds of miles around, according to a map of locations shared by the independent nonprofit Labor Notes.
They haven’t struck in over 15 years, according to several longtime workers Orlando Weekly spoke to on the picket line. And that last strike lasted maybe six hours — not even long enough for second-shift workers to join in.
Orlando Weekly was the first media on the scene of the strike, and was able to speak to several strikers in the moments that they left the building and lined up, signs in hand, along Boggy Creek Road.
Several workers seemed apprehensive about walking out. “We never wanted this day to come,” said UAW Local 1649 president Bernard Stewart, unpacking picket signs from his truck. But Tovic Powell, a worker of 24 years, offered a silver lining of the situation, scanning a line of about 30 of his co-workers picketing.
“It’s a wonderful scene,” said Powell, Local 1649's vice president, donning a bright red T-shirt and blue jeans. “We’re all showing solidarity, and we’re sticking up.”
Still, he admitted, “It's a stressful time.” Walking off the job isn't a point of fanfare, or easy on the mind. “The main subject [of going to work] is to come and make money for your family and go home.”
The workers’ union is negotiating a new four-year contract with the three automakers, standing firm on demands for a restoration of cost-of-living adjustments, job security during the transition to electric vehicle manufacturing, improved retiree benefits, and double-digit raises to match raises given to the Big Three CEOs.
“Do we want to strike? No,” said Wanda Carithers, a worker of 26 years, with a nod of agreement from her co-worker of 23 years, Gale Carson. “We wish they would reach an agreement, but we do what we have to do.”
For several workers out on the picket line, it’s making up for concessions they gave to the auto companies during the 2008 financial crisis that’s most important in this year’s contract fight.
At that time, as Stellantis (then Chrysler) and General Motors faced bankruptcy, union members agreed to wage freezes, a number of concessions affecting health benefits and pensions, and the creation of a lower-wage “tier” of workers, who are paid less for the same job and only get a 401k, not a pension.
None of that has been restored, despite the companies today reporting record profits.
“I’m grandfathered in,” said Keith Phelps, a 29-year health and safety rep and father who used to work up at a factory in Detroit before moving down to Florida in ’08.
But Phelps, who candidly admitted apprehension over the strike despite enthusiasm on the picket line, is worried about the younger generations who were hired after the tiered system went into place. He, like others Orlando Weekly spoke to, wants to see a better deal for workers hired after 2007 who don’t get the same wage scale or benefits that he does.
Carson and Carithers, two of some of the only women on the picket line Friday afternoon (there are more women on the second shift, they said), agreed with Phelps’ concerns for the younger hires, as well as working conditions for temporary workers. Those workers can spend years in temp status (with a longer wait than there used to be) before being getting the chance to secure a permanent position with better wages and benefits.
“We took a lot of concessions back when they bailed the auto industry out,” said Carson, a dark-haired woman about five years out from retirement age. “We’re told, ‘Oh, once we get back on our feet, you know, we’ll take care of you.’”
“We’re just trying to get back all the things we lost,” she added.
Targeting parts distribution centers, which employ a smaller number of workers, rather than more of the big factories up in the Midwest, was a strategic move, according to UAW President Fain.
Those warehouses “generate a lot of profits, especially for Stellantis,” he said Friday afternoon, standing along striking workers at a picket line up in Michigan.
“It’s one thing to take out a plant and say, OK, we're not gonna make no Dodge Rams for a minute,” added Phelps, one of the workers in Orlando who previously worked in one of those plants. “But when you say nobody's getting parts all across the country, now you shuttin' America down.”
The union strategically decided not to have all 146,000 UAW members of the Big Three walk off the job at once last Friday, one minute after their last contract expired.
Instead, they’re taking a targeted approach that they call the Stand Up Strike — a reference to their militant sit-down strikes of the 1930s — that keeps the bosses guessing as to where they’re going to strike next.
“The Stand Up Strike movement is not just about the Big Three,” said Fain, a newly elected union reformer and multi-generation UAW member from Indiana, who took office earlier this year after years of concessions and findings of corruption in former leadership.
“Everywhere, UAW members and the working class are ready to stand up against corporate greed and stand up for our communities,” he shared.
“We're not just a union facility,” said Gary Lopez, another worker standing out on the picket line in Orlando. “We're united, you know, for the people in the United States.”
According to Stewart, Local 1469’s president, auto workers at Stellantis’ Orlando depot will picket until sundown, and start back up again when the sun comes back up.
There’s no lighting along the side of the road, he noted, and because it’s a busy one — located next to Orlando International Airport, one of the busiest air hubs in the U.S. — they’ve been granted permission by the international union to avoid putting workers at risk on the road after dark.
When contacted for comment about the strike in Orlando, a Stellantis spokesperson directed Orlando Weekly to their website, where the company states that it's "committed to working with the UAW to help Stellantis reach a competitive collective bargaining agreement."
"We also are dedicated to providing good jobs that allow families and communities to grow by ensuring we have a competitive and sustainable business," the company's statement adds.
Check out some of the faces of Orlando's UAW strikers below.