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Behind the push to "end tiers," a precarious history of solidarity in the UAW

United Auto Workers members and supporters picket outside a General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pa., Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. The United Auto Workers expanded its strike against major automakers Friday, walking out of 38 General Motors and Stellantis parts distribution centers in 20 states. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/AP
United Auto Workers members and supporters picket outside a General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pa., Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. The United Auto Workers expanded its strike against major automakers Friday, walking out of 38 General Motors and Stellantis parts distribution centers in 20 states. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

It was 2004 and American Axle executives were looking for a break.

The parts company, which had been spun off from General Motors in 1994, was making money supplying axles and drivetrains to the big trucks and SUVs that drove Detroit’s profits in those days. But Axle remained reliant on GM for its business, and GM was on shaky ground. All of the Detroit car makers were rapidly losing market share to their non-unionized foreign rivals.

To stay competitive, Axle executives were on a mission to cut costs. So they came into their United Auto Workers contract negotiations with pitch: a lower wage scale for newer hires.

Right away, Wendy Thompson was against the idea.

“I was the only one, however, on the negotiating team that took that position.” Thompson says now. “I said, 'I will not recommend a yes vote if it has two-tier.'”

At the time, Thompson was president of UAW Local 235, which represented American Axle workers at its Detroit plant.

Despite her objections, tiered wages moved forward not only at American Axle, but, three years later, disparate pay scales went in the contracts at the Detroit three as well.

It was a break from the “equal pay for equal work” ethos of the union, but troubled times called for new solutions. UAW leadership figured lower wages for some were better than no wage for all.

Wendy Thompson, retired former president of UAW Local 235, sits on her livingroom couch, with her arm resting on a pillow.
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Wendy Thompson at her home in Detroit.
“Once you accept a certain section of the workforce to go down, then they’re going to put pressure on you to bring everybody down.”
Wendy Thompson, former president of UAW Local 235.

Thompson didn’t see it that way, and still doesn’t.

“It put the entire union in danger,” she says. “Once you accept a certain section of the workforce to go down, then they’re going to put pressure on you to bring everybody down.”

Twenty years after voicing her concerns as the lone holdout on the negotiating team, many in the UAW have come around to Thompson’s view.

Ending the tiered wage system is the top item on the list of “member’s demands” issued by UAW President Shawn Fain over the summer. Fain, and all of his deputies, were elected by the union’s membership based on a campaign slogan that promised “No tiers.”

For many in the union, ending tiers has become important not just to help raise wages for those at the bottom, but because tiered wages undermine one of the union’s core principles: solidarity.

But the fact is, solidarity has always been on precarious ground in the labor movement. Even at the founding of the UAW, solidarity wasn’t a given.

Before solidarity

The concept of equal pay for equal work did not come from the labor movement in the U.S. During the American Civil War, Black soldiers in the Union refused to serve when they were offered less pay than white soldiers, leading Congress to pass a law that equalized pay for all troops. And in January of 1868, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony launched their women’s rights newspaper, The Revolution, calling for equal pay for women in the first paragraph of the paper’s first edition.

At times, the white male leaders of the nation’s largest trade unions supported these calls for equal pay. But they also frequently sidestepped the issue by blocking anyone who wasn’t white or male from joining their unions in the first place.

“At the time that I joined the union, there wasn’t too much effort made on the part of my white brothers to enroll Blacks into the union,” said Shelton Tappes in an oral history recording that’s part of the collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.

A line of men, including Walter Reuther, stand on the right smiling at a second line of men approaching from the left, standing near an entrance to Ford's Rouge plant in 1937. Behind the men, a sign on the plant reads "Ford Motor Company."
A marked photograph from the moments before the fight at the Battle of the Overpass at Ford in 1937. The photograph is held by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Libary.

Tappes became a leader in the UAW’s organizing push at Ford Motor Company in the 1930s, and he was present at the famous Battle of the Overpass in 1937 that proved to be a crucial turning point in the union’s history.

Tappes became one of the top organizers in charge of reaching out to Black workers at Ford, where he worked.

He said at that time, it was a new approach in the union movement in the auto industry. Before then, many unions excluded Black workers.

“This goes back to the old days when the only unions in this country were the old line American Federation of Labor craft unions,” Tappes said in the recording. “But the CIO had come along with a new note and we were actually getting together as workers.”

The CIO — the Congress of Industrial Organizations -- was born not out of solidarity, but division. Actually it was more than division, it was a fight within the American Federation of Labor, or AFL -- an actual, literal fistfight at the AFL convention in Atlantic City in 1935. Out of that fistfight, the CIO grew.

The UAW came out of the CIO. And it was successful in large part because the CIO organizers did something the old AFL was never willing to do. It included all workers -- including Black workers.

“That solidarity is no longer a word, it’s a fact,” intones the narrator in “United Action Means Victory,” a UAW film made in 1939 to celebrate the tool and die worker strike at GM. This strike was two years after the Flint sit-down strike that put the UAW on the map -- but it was this strike that finally won the UAW the right to bargain for all GM workers nationwide.

And at the heart of that victory was the union’s embrace of a new kind of solidarity. A solidarity that fought for all the workers in the plant.

“No longer could the companies split the union ranks with the question of race or religion,” declares the narrator in “United Action Means Victory” as the tune of “Solidarity Forever” swells behind him. “Negro and whites marched together on the picket line. They had one union and they were proud of it.”

The UAW-CIO stood in solidarity with Black workers not just because it was right, but because it had to.

It won’t be surprising to hear that many white union workers in the 1930s didn’t like the idea of working alongside Black workers, and getting paid the same.

But if the union didn’t accept equal pay for all workers, then every time white workers walked out over wages, the companies could find Black workers who could walk right back in. If the unions weren’t looking out for them, why would they stand in solidarity?

It wasn’t just theoretical. Companies had been using these divisions for years, including at one strike in Chrysler in 1939. Ultimately the UAW had to fight for all workers. Solidarity wasn’t just a strategy. It was a necessary prerequisite for the UAW’s success.

Not that the union has always kept up its end of the bargain. It hasn’t.

Thompson witnessed this first-hand when she arrived at her first auto plant job in the early 1970s, among a group of women that she says were the first ones hired at the plant since World War II.

The first day she walked in, she says the men in the plant cheered.

"But that did not last long," Thompson says now. "Because then it was 'Wait a minute, there's too many of them coming in, they're taking the better jobs, we don't like this.' And then a negative reaction set in."

Within the union, there have always been movements to push leadership to more fully embrace the solidarity that it has promised its members. One of the most notable was the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, or DRUM — a movement by Black workers to secure more power in leadership positions in the UAW.

But, while many of these movements took hold in the union, there has been since the 1930s one basic form of solidarity, which came in the form of a paycheck. For production workers in the union, there really was equal pay for equal work -- regardless of race, gender or seniority.

Until the tiers came in.

Misconceptions about tiers

“The day that I was hired, essentially three tiers were created,” says Chris Viola, who works at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant.

He’s worked his whole career under the tier system.

This summer, Viola wrote a piece for Jacobin magazine explaining why the tier system has become the most important issue in the contract for workers like him.

There are lots of misconceptions about wage tiers, he says.

“Like, I always hear the phrase ‘two-tier.’ People I respect are saying ‘two-tier,’” he says. “I’m like, no. There’s like 12 if you break ‘em all down.”

At GM alone, there’s the tiers at regular GM, then GMCH and the parts distribution centers known as CCA. And there are other tiers for the joint ventures for battery making. And there’s GM subsystems. Below all of them is a system for temporary workers -- the lowest tier of the many-layered tiered system.

Thousands of workers get stuck at that level for years, making barely $16 an hour, with no job security. Barely better than fast food workers.

But at the same time, other workers are doing OK. And Viola says he’s seen how that splits the union.

For example, in the 2019 GM strike. Viola says he heard a lot of talk from people on the line about eliminating tiers back then.

But when the tentative agreement came out after four weeks on strike, there were still tiers. Temporary workers were still allowed.

“I remember a guy that was picketing with me on my team saying like, ‘You know, people know what they’re signing up for with this contract.’”

It’s going to get worse if we don’t stop it.
Chris Viola, GM worker, on tiered wages

In the end, that contract passed with the tiers still in place.

“They forgot about us,” one GMCH worker told me in 2019 after the contract deal was announced.

Viola says workers in the lower tiers were right to feel that way.

That’s why for Viola, and for many other union members on the picket lines now, ending tiers has become the number-one issue.

“We could’ve nipped this in the bud like six years ago or longer, and we didn’t,” Viola says. “And it keeps going and it’s going to get worse if we don’t stop it.”

The idea that people doing the same job in the same workplace but have different pay is normal for a lot of workers outside the UAW. It’s the norm in office work.

But inside the UAW, tiers have been a departure from the strategy that built the union in the first place.

The strategy of tiered wages came in at a particular time for a particular reason.

But workers like Viola say they see how it has divided workers for almost 20 years now.

That’s why many say -- no matter what else comes out of contract talks -- ending the tier system has to be the top priority.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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