They Sacrificed to Survive Bankruptcy. They Worked Through A Pandemic. Now, Autoworkers Have Had Enough.

“I want to see them return what they promised to the workers that saved the company,” says a striking Stellantis worker in Minnesota.

PLYMOUTH, MINN. — Bonita Burns, 50, sits in a camping chair on the lawn in front of Mopar Parts Distribution Center. One of the crutches she uses to get around after her foot surgery leans against the chair. A picket sign leans against the other side. She is scratching off lottery tickets, hoping for some luck. 

“I don’t know how long we’re gonna be on strike,” she says. ​“We need the strike to get our point across and get our demands met.” 

She’s come off medical leave to join on a picket line that started that morning at 11 a.m., when workers at Mopar and 37 other parts distribution centers walked off the job, expanding the UAW’s stand-up strike against the Big Three automakers. 

January will mark 11 years at Stellantis for Burns. She cares for three grandchildren and is hoping a new contract will make it easier for current and future workers to support themselves and their families. She says she’s seen single mothers who had to quit after being forced to work overtime.

“She’s gonna strike it rich!” says Brandon Lee, 31, a forklift operator, jokes about Burns’ lotto tickets. He and Alex Tivis, 33, march together around the lawn with picket signs. They were both hired nine years ago at $15.78 an hour. They recall working 90 days in a row during the probationary period, ten hours a day, seven days a week. The paychecks piled up — they didn’t have any time to cash them.

Lee and Tivis, who are now making around $31 an hour, are adamant that the ​“tiered-wage” system — a lower pay scale for new hires — must end. That’s one of the big demands of the UAW in the contract negotiations with the Big Three: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (Chrysler’s parent company). Workers at Mopar, represented by UAW Local 125, are hoping to see better raises, return of cost-of-living adjustments, more paid time off and the return of pensions. 

For the workers on strike today, this struggle is about the past, present and future coming together.

Alex Tivis, who has worked at the Mopar Parts Distribution Warehouse in Plymouth, Minn., for nine years, poses with his father, David Kirby, who has worked at the warehouse for 25 years.

Tivis is second generation: His father also worked at Mopar. That good union job provided for their family when he was growing up. Lee’s grandfather worked in the warehouse, and his father and sister currently work there. 

Things changed after the 2008 recession, when workers sacrificed benefits for the sake of the company, says Lee. ​“The company took a lot of things from them.”

Lee, who saves up his days off for hunting season, says that it’s hard to have a life outside of work. ​“A lot of people just accept corporate greed, and feel like there’s nothing we can do about it because we don’t have the money and we’re not as high up,” he says. ​“But as a whole, we do have enough power to stand up for what we want.”

“I want to see them return what they promised to the workers that saved the company,” Burns agrees.

Some of the workers on the picket line have been working at the Plymouth warehouse for only two months, although they’ve been with Stellantis for decades. They were sent here after Stellantis idled the assembly plant they were previously working at in Belvidere, Ill., back in February. ​“The company’s treating us like we don’t matter,” says Jeff Stevenson. ​“If you idle a plant, you can just lay everybody off. There’s still people back at home that don’t have a place to go.”

Several still have families in Illinois. They drive back and forth for visits, paying double mortgages in order to live in both states. 

Former Belvidere workers Mike Melnicki and Steve Kelly, who are a few years away from retirement, want to see the pensions that were lost in 2009 reinstated. ​“It’s what we’re fighting for,” says Melnicki, who worked in a plant in Syracuse, N.Y., before Belvidere. ​“I’m not gonna give it up.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, auto parts workers were declared essential, distributing the parts that kept vehicles like ambulances and firetrucks on the road. ​“It’s disheartening that the company seems to forget about how important that was,” Tivis says. ​“We’re not sure exactly how [long] this is gonna last. But as a union, we’ve come together. We’re willing to dig our heels in and go the distance.”

​​This article is a joint publication with In These Times, an independent, nonprofit magazine dedicated to advancing democracy and economic justice, informing movements for a more humane world, and providing an accessible forum for debate about the policies that shape our future.

Amie Stager is the Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.

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