Auto Parts Workers Strike for Recognition

UPDATE 5 p.m. Thursday: After workers spent a shift on the picket line, management gave in and recognized the UAW.

Auto parts workers at the Piston Automotive factory in Toledo, Ohio, went on strike for union recognition this morning—a move that could quickly shut down production of the new Jeep Cherokee, built by Chrysler in a plant across town.

Jeep workers said production had been starting and stopping during the first shift. On the picket line, Jim Waingrow, UAW international rep for the region, said he was expecting a call from Jeep management any minute. At 2 p.m. the Piston CEO was spotted conferring with the union’s regional director.

Piston workers said 75-80 percent had signed cards asking for UAW representation, but management had refused to recognize them. The 70 workers make brake systems and struts for the Cherokee.

It’s the norm for companies to refuse to recognize new bargaining units, even when a majority of workers sign cards. These days a union’s typical next step is filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board—but this gives the boss a chance to drag out the process and put workers through an anti-union wringer. Strikes for recognition, once common, have become rare.

Striker Trina Lawson said the plant normally ships 460 to 500 units a day to Jeep, and her hand is the last to touch them. She said workers approached the UAW when they learned that other supplier plants were paid more than the $12.55 experienced workers make.

Lawson cited instances of managers’ “picky, childish” intimidation and said workers were sometimes made to work through their breaks or lunches. Sarina McLaughlin, who torques the bolts for the knuckles and puts trailing arms on the rear brake line, said sometimes managers tell workers two minutes before quitting time that they have to stay over—and then dismisses them at 12 minutes after the hour, before extra pay would kick in.

Asked why she backed the union, McLaughlin said, “In 1982 I was making $10.54 an hour at a union Safeway bread plant in Houston. They only want to pay us $12.55 and that was 32 years ago; that’s all I got to say.”

Lawson said the plant manager gave a speech inside the plant, threatening workers with points on their record or loss of holiday pay, and warning them that a walkout would shut Jeep down—but at 9 a.m. they all walked out anyway.

Shutting Jeep down was the plan, after all. They had earlier been briefed by UAW reps on the strategy: affect production of the lucrative Jeep so that Jeep will pressure its supplier to recognize the union.

“Cigarettes have tripled, gas has quadrupled. Those people up there in the office couldn’t support their family on $12.55 an hour,” McLaughlin said. She said even temporary workers were on the line.

In 1997 the UAW used a similar strategy to take advantage of the outsize power that the “just-in-time” parts supply system gives to supplier workers. Seat builders at Johnson Controls, a supplier to Ford, stopped production of Ford’s Expedition SUV (profit: $10,000 per vehicle).

And in 2002 the union shut down Jeep production to force recognition and first contracts at four other Johnson Controls plants.

George Windau, who works at Jeep, said at the time the strike was “so devastating on production simply because of the ‘just in time’ supply philosophy used in the plants, which relies on a steady and continuous flow of these parts from Johnson Controls.”

When a reporter noted today’s display of power by Piston Automotive workers, McLaughlin laughed. “I’m loving it,” she said.

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