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The latest from the UAW strike

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

United Auto Workers are testing their strength with a strike. That union used to be a titan. Today it's a good deal smaller. And the perks of union membership have gotten smaller. But at a rally last night in Detroit, the union's president, Shawn Fain, said it's time for a change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN FAIN: They're afraid because they see their system - where the billionaires keep everything - crumbling, and we're not afraid.

SIMON: NPR's Camila Domonoske joins us now from Detroit. Thanks for being with us.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: What's it been like? What have you seen?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. I mean, I talked to executives at the Detroit Auto Show. I went out and spoke to people on picket lines in pitch blackness. There's one image from this week that I think I'll never forget. There were two events right next to each other in downtown Detroit last night. One was a big UAW rally. Bernie Sanders spoke, huge emphasis on the vast and growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots in America. And then literally next door, Scott, there was a glitzy charity event at the auto show - $400 a head for a ticket, people dressed to the nines in floor-length gowns with drinks, walking around the cars, and right outside, red-T-shirted people in the streets with picket signs, just separated by some glass and some mounted police officers.

SIMON: UAW last went on strike in 2019. What do you see that's different this time?

DOMONOSKE: A lot of things are different. The union leadership is different. They're being unusually transparent. They're having updates about the talks back and forth. It's unusual to strike all three companies at once. The union's never done that. It's also unusual to start with just a few plants and then threaten to grow over time, which is how they're doing these strikes. All of that is different. More fundamentally, the union is asking for a lot more in these talks, with these strikes than they have in any recent negotiations.

SIMON: Such as what?

DOMONOSKE: Well, the - more pay, obviously, but also pensions, cost-of-living adjustments, health care for retirees, pay for workers at shuttered plants. And those are things that the union gave up, things the union used to have, but gave back to the company in the Great Recession, things that the car companies say are way too expensive to give back. Brendan Bell was on the picket line this week. He's only actually worked at Ford for three years, so he wasn't around for the Great Recession. But all these workers know this history.

BRENDAN BELL: They gave up wages. They gave up their retirement funds. They gave a lot to the company because the company was in a bad situation. They were facing bankruptcy.

DOMONOSKE: And that stuff they gave up, they can still see it around them. Justin Lowe works at that same plant.

JUSTIN LOWE: I come from a long line of family that's been in the UAW, and they have pensions and stuff like that, and it's just like - kind of sucks like, well, because you came later, you just don't get it. So I would really like to see the pension back.

DOMONOSKE: I heard a variation of that from so many people.

SIMON: What made them decide that now is the time to make the big push?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Well, there is the new leadership. There's also the huge profits that companies have. The automakers have done great the last few years, so there's money on the table. Inflation has workers ready to push for more. You know, they're not happy with the offer of a 10, 15, even a 20% raise. It's not as good as it would have sounded, you know, four years ago. There's also a lot of support for unions right now from the public, from the Biden administration. And other unions have had some big wins, which is sort of motivating or inspiring for unions. So overall, the UAW sees this as an opportunity, maybe a unique one, to secure some gains into the future.

SIMON: What could be ahead?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it's unpredictable. There's real frustration on both sides. And I should mention, the car companies are frustrated with the union. They say they're not being reasonable, not answering their offers. President Biden says he's sending two key members of his administration to help with negotiations. And there is the threat that additional plants could close at any time. We don't know where. We don't know when. The union strategy here is to be unpredictable.

SIMON: NPR's Camila Domonoske in Detroit. Thanks so much for being with us.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "HOME AGAIN") 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.