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UAW’s targeted walk-offs, including at Ohio plant, took automakers by surprise

A group of people march holding signs that read "UAW on Strike." A man in a red polo leads the group chanting into a megaphone.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
UAW workers chanted, “No justice, no parts,” outside the Stellantis distribution center in Streetsboro on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

The United Auto Workers union is in its third week striking against the Big 3 automakers: Ford, Stellantis and General Motors. Toledo’s Stellantis Jeep assembly plant was one of the first sites to walk off to protest wages.

In the following weeks, two more Ohio locations joined the strike — a GM parts distribution center outside of Cincinnati, and a Stellantis parts distribution center near Cleveland.

The locations of some of these targeted walk-offs might have surprised auto manufacturers, according to Daniel Boguslaw, a reporter with The Intercept. He joined The Ohio Newsroom to share his reporting on the union’s tactics and strategy.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

On the strike’s historical significance

There's two components here. One is that the UAW represents workers who have a historical legacy of being the sort of backbone, the symbolic and literal backbone, of American manufacturing.

“The other component is the sort of novel strategy that they're using during this strike, instead of a sort of short, concentrated, full-scale walk off that a lot of unions have practiced in the past. (The full-scale walk offs) have served as an often symbolic show of force, mustering the full strength of their workforce but, ultimately, blowing through their strike fund in a short matter of days and usually folding with not the best contract possible.

"These companies are forced to face a militancy that they have not seen in decades."
Daniel Boguslaw, reporter at The Intercept

“(But this time), the UAW opted for a much more targeted strategy, concealing the exact locations of the plants that are going to strike, and ultimately forcing the companies to try to predict which plants were going to be shut down, and inflicting economic and logistical damage on themselves in the process.”

On the union’s unpredictability 

“Talking to guys on the shop floor and different plants, they were talking about how word would spread through the plant, ‘Our plant is going to strike, get ready.’ And then that whisper would pass on to management within the plants, and management would pass that onto the Big 3 bosses. And so then they would sort of try to anticipate the strike coming down at that plant.

“That could look like closing down the paint divisions and the kilns that dry car panels. It could mean moving engine blocks from Southern plants all the way across the country to Midwest plants.

“Then, when the locations were announced, they were caught off guard and realized that a lot of the plants that they had heard were going to have workers walk off were actually not the ones targeted at all. And so really, they ended up, as one worker said, ‘striking themselves’ in a certain sense, by effectively closing down parts of their plants.”

On the automakers’ response

“When I requested comments from these companies, they sort of offered vague statements about ‘Well, we took all sorts of preparations before any strike, you have to take certain preparations.’ But I think, really, they were caught off guard because labor leaders have been so willing to really fold, and these companies are forced to face a militancy that they have not seen in decades.

“Those strategies are a byproduct of new leadership. And I think these companies in the consultants that they hire to deal with the strike, some of them haven't faced labor actions like this in their lifetimes. They have been caught off guard, and they're going to have to try very hard to adapt.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.