The United Auto Workers union has never before, in its nearly 90-year history, been on strike at the same time against three large Detroit automakers: General Motors (G.M.), Ford Motor Company, and Stellantis (the parent company of Chrysler).
The strike that began on September 15 and grew last Friday has closed down 38 parts distribution centers operated by G.M. Stellantis. Around 18,300 U.A.W. About 18,300 U.A.W. A few models are affected, but an extended strike could affect the economy and consumers in the United States.
Neal E. Boudette has reported on the negotiations that have taken place between unions and automakers. He covers the auto industry for The New York Times from Detroit. Since 2002, he has been covering the auto industry for The Wall Street Journal in Germany. He joined The Times in 2016.
Boudette discussed the history of the auto industry in America, the symbolism it holds, and the impact this strike may have on other automakers. This interview has been edited.
This week, President Biden visited an active picket in Michigan. It was described as a first for a president. Is this strike different than the U.A.W. strike at General Motors or previous ones?
Many of the strikes over the last 20 years were more symbolic than strategic. This year’s dynamic is completely different. The union is in a strong position to negotiate. The car companies make a lot of money, and the workers don’t get raises that keep up with inflation. The public is very supportive of the workers.
In the past, there have been many highly contentious strikes. They even led to street fights. In the 21st Century, this strike has never happened.
You lived in Germany for a while before moving to Detroit. What is the difference in the setting?
Detroit is the Motor City. The entire region is very strongly connected to automobiles. The automobile has a long history, and there is a lot of culture that surrounds it. Detroit Red Wings – their logo is an eagle wheel.
In Germany, it was much less common. I was in Frankfurt and not an auto center. Opel was just outside Frankfurt, and Mercedes was to the South. B.M.W. Volkswagen was in Wolfsburg, up north. The towns are similar to Detroit but not as concentrated.
Has the evolution of electric vehicles changed your job?
There are several aspects to electrification. In addition to the fact that these cars have to be designed, developed, and produced, there is a social component. There are chargers everywhere, and charging your vehicle is a social activity that’s different from filling up the gas tank.
There’s also the issue of climate change. It has been said that the evolution of the automotive industry towards electronic vehicles is the largest transition in the history of the sector since the introduction of moving assembly lines.
Now, the beat has many different faces. It wasn’t like this before the financial crisis. It was true that there was a race in technology, but the race was very small. It’s now taking on a greater breadth.
What will be the impact of the strike on the industry?
The union and the automakers will eventually agree. The next question is: What burden will this contract place on these companies’ shoulders? Their competitors — Toyota, Volkswagen, and Honda Kia — operate non-union factories. The majority of their employees earn considerably less than the U.A.W. wage.
U.A.W. The U.A.W. tried to organize Volkswagen in Tennessee and Nissan in Mississippi. However, the workers rejected union representation. They didn’t like to upset the apple cart.
There’s a lot more power in the hands of workers today. It’s possible that workers in the South could say: “We make $22 an hour.” Detroit workers earn $32 per hour. We should join the union.
Are you an avid car enthusiast?
It’s funny, I’m not. I am interested in cars, but I don’t like them. Believe it or not, I drive a Chevy Malibu.
Covering cars is a great way to get creative. No other country has as many songs and movies about automobiles. There’s “409” by the Beach Boys and “Knight Rider,” a David Hasselhoff show. It’s an entire T.V. series based around cars.
Detroit has some good stories. It’s sometimes a question of explaining something to the reader. In the last year, we did a great deal of this with the switch to electric vehicles. It’s also possible to write about some really interesting people. It’s the only thing that keeps me going.