Workers Vanguard No. 1083
12 February 2016
Diary of an Auto Temp
We print below a report, edited for publication, from a reader who was a temporary worker at a Midwest plant that supplies parts for Ford. Written late last summer as the United Auto Workers (UAW) was negotiating new contracts with the “Detroit Three” automakers Fiat Chrysler, GM and Ford, the report shines a harsh light on the increasing use of temps and the grueling working conditions facing all auto workers. It also highlights the anger among auto workers that can and must be mobilized in hard class struggle against the auto giants.
At the center of last year’s contract dispute was the demand to eliminate the hated tier system. Brought into the auto assembly plants in 2007 with the agreement of the union bureaucracy, this system meant that newer workers got paid less than workers hired before 2007 to do the same job. The new contracts agreed to by the union tops preserved the tiers and were opposed by huge numbers of UAW members. In the end, the UAW misleaders finally forced the sellout contracts down the throats of angry autoworkers late last year. At Fiat Chrysler, the workers rejected management’s initial offer by a two-to-one margin, while a clear majority of skilled GM workers and 49 percent of Ford workers rejected the rotten deal. In the course of negotiations, UAW workers repeatedly threatened to strike.
Workers’ bitterness at the tier system expresses their strong desire for equal pay for equal work and working-class unity. As part of the necessary fight for industrial unionism and the closed shop, all workers—including the growing legions of non-unionized temporary workers—should be organized into the unions at top pay with full benefits and union protections. In parts plants like the one described below, workers should be in the same local as the final assembly plant they supply. But, as we wrote in “UAW Tops Force Through Sellout Contracts” (WV No. 1080, 11 December), today’s union leaders, who are committed to maintaining the profitability of the auto giants, “push reliance on the capitalist Democratic Party and the government, in place of independent working-class action.” We continued:
“What auto workers need is a class-struggle leadership forged in battles like the ones that built the UAW and other industrial unions in the 1930s.... To hold to such a perspective against the many obstacles that the bourgeoisie will put in the way requires building a revolutionary workers party dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist profit system for good and forever.”
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This summer I spent some time working at an auto parts plant in the Midwest. The plant was one of several located adjacent to a large Ford auto plant. It manufactured front and rear bumpers and overheads (roofs) and is one of several different locations that all produce something different. For example, one shop manufactures axles, another front and rear bumper fascias, etc. My plant employed some 280 people in three shifts, in addition to 90 temps who were brought in this summer.
Any new-hire was actually an employee of a temp agency. Temps were paid $10 an hour. If the company hired the temp permanently (after three months), the rate of pay would increase to $12 an hour, but they would still have to wait another three months on probation before getting full union protection. The pay range for UAW workers was $12 to $24 an hour, going up in intervals of $0.25 every six months.
While the building was new, it had old machinery from the Ford plant. All parts made there were transferred by semitruck to the Ford assembly plant down the street. The parts from the various parts plants in the area were all assembled together at Ford. From there, the final product was shipped off along the supply chain.
Auto Parts Plantation
The workers at the plant were black, with the exception of a few whites and Latinos. Almost all of the black workers grew up in the ghetto, though some were now living in nicer, working-class areas because they had this job. The gender makeup was divided equally on my shift. The general feel of the place was that of a plantation, and several of the union workers commented on it being such. It’s a sentiment that puts the term “wage slavery” in a whole different light.
The two team leads were white and although they were union members, they reported directly to and worked with management (although they had no ability to discipline). My lead was known for being very pro-strike and anti-racist and was respected by most of the workers for this. The shift supervisors (who were management, not union members) were black; they walked the lines shouting: “Move it, move it, move it!” to get the operators (line workers) to work faster. All the superintendents (the plantation overseers) were white with the exception of one black guy. They sat at their computers in the break area, while the workers worked their butts off. Management was trying to get the team leads out of the union and categorized as management.
The workers (temp and union) were all fairly young, with just a handful over 40 years old. The majority of the full-timers had been employed for over three years. There were skilled workers (mechanics and maintenance engineers) who were part of the UAW like everyone else. Material handlers (forklift drivers) were also in the union and got $0.50 more per hour than the assembly line workers. All union workers were in the same UAW local, though it’s a different local from the Ford assembly plant. The temps were non-union but were generally pro-union and looked forward to joining the UAW. Some saw working at this parts plant as a way to eventually get hired at Ford, where many had friends or family working.
Life on the Line
Parts came to the factory in several pieces and had to be assembled through a network of “lines.” Some of the parts were made in Mexico, others in stamping plants in the U.S. Once the parts arrived at the plant, they were put on huge shelves in the back of the factory. A “cherry picker” was assigned to each line and was solely responsible for getting the parts down and putting them out for the line workers to use. The cherry picker operator, who was definitely overworked and underpaid, had to pick parts based on a stream of barcodes that came directly from Ford.
The primary line that I worked on made front bumpers. The parts needed to be scanned in and carried between a series of stations where various stages of the assembly were done. At the second station, for example, there was a timer and the workers had 40 seconds to complete that stage of building the bumper or else the overall shift quota would be hurt. The quota was between 500 and 600 for complete front bumpers per night. On top of that, workers had to maintain an additional “bank” of roughly 200 fully assembled bumpers.
The working conditions were extremely onerous for union and temp workers alike. This line at one time comprised 30 workers, but over time the number of workers dropped to two! So I and another woman constructed each of these bumpers and did all the hauling from start to finish. She and I were very frustrated because there was obviously a need for more people on the line.
I worked the third shift, meaning 12-hour day shifts Friday and Saturday and then 12-hour night shifts Sunday and Monday. First shift worked 12-hour days Monday through Thursday and second shift worked nights. While workers expected to work 12-hour shifts as part of “mandatory overtime until further notice,” management often avoided confirming the overtime as a way to cheat workers out of their final break.
The forklift drivers worked a different schedule from the line workers. They worked 13 consecutive days with the same break schedule and overtime requirements. This posed serious safety concerns, although no one on my shift was injured in a forklift accident. Each shift had its own set of material handlers.
During the course of the summer, management’s treatment of the workers with regard to breaks became more and more abusive as negotiations for the parts plant contract went on. The treatment of the temps regarding breaks was much worse than for union workers. On the hottest days, some of my co-workers passed out from the heat. Management provided water, but only on breaks. Workers could bring bottled water back to their stations. While there were a lot of powerful ceiling fans, there was no air conditioning or windows, so the fans just blew hot air. When it was 100 degrees outside, it would be well over 100 inside.
Generally, workers got three ten-minute breaks during their shift. For each break, there were two bells. The first bell normally meant it was time for us to finish what we were doing and then head to the break area. The second indicated that the break had started and the 10 minutes had begun ticking. When the workers had to return from break, there were two bells again: the first one meaning clean up your area, finish your smoke or whatever, and the second one meaning it was time to head back to the line. There were two minutes between each bell, which was how long it took the workers to get from their stations to the break area.
By the end of the summer, the first bell meant nothing, and we had to keep working at the line until we heard the second bell. From that point, we were to quickly take a break and be back on the line by the time the first bell rang again. This was a major source of tension between workers (including the team leads) and management. If a temp was caught coming back from break “late,” they were escorted out of the building by management (i.e., fired!). Union workers were given three days’ suspension for being “late.” The union rep on the shift said to the workers: “Please, I’m begging you; please just do what they say. Don’t give them any lip. Management is sick of hearing it and we’re sick of hearing it.” Needless to say, he wasn’t a popular guy among the ranks, especially during this speedup.
To give a sense of how precarious it was to be a temp, one of the temps that I regularly drove to work with was fired because his three-year-old daughter got sick. He needed to take the day off work to take care of her because he couldn’t find a babysitter. A union member’s child got sick once too, but the union member was able to take the day off work (with pay) to take care of her son. It should have been like that for everyone!
The “N” word was used promiscuously at my location by young black workers. I never heard whites or Latinos use it. There was a white guy who wore a Confederate flag belt buckle to work every day. He was very pro-union and apparently not actually a racist, since he hung out with black guys at work and also outside of work. He seemed like an example of the mixed consciousness of some white workers in Middle America, where the Confederate flag is sometimes looked at as a sign of “rebellion” and not as the flag of slavery and race terror.
There were a few openly gay men and women in the plant. They were treated as equals among the ranks of workers. Nonetheless, when it came to a discussion that took place on the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, there seemed to be a mixed reaction due to religious beliefs. One temp commented along the lines of, “I think it’s a sin, but who am I to judge? I’m also a sinner.” But this response was not necessarily representative of everyone. Another temp, whose best friend was gay, was very excited about the ruling.
There was also a very strong hatred for the cops. On lunch and breaks, my co-workers would check out Facebook and other social media for news headlines. Not surprisingly, a lot of trending articles were about cop killings of blacks. This would always set off an angry verbal reaction by the workers.
This summer, the local contract at this plant expired, and it was a major source of contention between management and the workers—both temp and union. In short, the union had voted to strike if a contract agreement was not reached, but this strike didn’t happen. In July, the union voted down the contract: 97 percent voted no and 3 percent yes. The main topic of debate was the issue of raises. Workers wanted a raise. Bottom line. But because the proposed contract offered only about a $1 raise over the lifetime of the contract, it’s not shocking that no one liked it, considering that auto workers hadn’t had a reasonable raise since 2008.
During this same period, as a show of unity, the union members all wore red, which looked really cool. I asked my “old-timer” co-worker if I could wear red too, she said “Sure!” So I wore a shirt with red in it, as a show of solidarity. The union told the membership at the contract vote meeting to shout out “no contract, no peace” on the day shift, so that HR would hear them down the hall. Lots of people on the rear bumper line shouted it, and on overheads too, but the guys who work on the front bumpers mostly stayed quiet. The overhead guys got some crap from the union reps on shift because when they did chant, they started getting creative with contract demands, making up awesome chants like: “No talking! No substrate!” (Substrate is the material that the overheads are made out of.) Basically they were saying, “Stop the negotiating, we’re going on strike.” The union reps really didn’t like this.
After the local contract was voted down, the company had 30 days to reach agreement with the union; otherwise there would have been another meeting to vote on another strike authorization. I spoke with one of my former co-workers recently, who informed me that this August meeting never took place and that people were getting fired or quitting, but that they still didn’t have a contract.