As temporary Stellantis layoffs loom, UAW workers in Kokomo hit practice picket line
A large group of United Auto Workers members and supporters gathered Sunday to practice picketing in front of a Stellantis plant in Kokomo. The company is set to temporarily lay off about 300 workers at two parts manufacturing plants in the city.
The practice picketers marched from the UAW Local 685 hall to Stellantis’ Kokomo Casting Plant nearby, passing a dealership that sells Stellantis vehicle brands Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep.
Such dealerships are expected to particularly feel the effects of the UAW’s latest strike expansion.
After targeting one assembly plant each at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis as the contract expired two weeks ago, the union announced new strike targets Friday in its unusual “stand up strike” strategy: parts distribution centers owned by GM and Stellantis.
Ford was off the hook for that expansion, as the union said it made more “substantial progress” in negotiations than the other two.
Those parts distribution centers are responsible for getting official brand parts to dealerships and customers for vehicle maintenance. Dave Willis, Sr. is the president of UAW Local 1166, which represents workers at the Kokomo Casting Plant.
“We worry about every bit of that. Even in one of the letters that come through corporate, you know, they said ‘your community depends on good negotiations,” Willis said. “I kind of took it as a threat. I'm sorry, that's the way I understood that line. I know there will be fallout. Of course, it may get a little hard at times, but we got to do what we need to do and now is our time.”
As they marched, the demonstrators took up chants like “no deals, no wheels” and held up signs listing union demands like “COLA [cost of living adjustments] and fair pay now” or “end tiers. No more second class workers.”
Mandi Drake knows what it is like to be in, what many refer to as, the “second tier” of auto workers at the “big three.” She worked for Stellantis’ Kokomo Transmission Plant for 13 years before being elected to Local 685 union leadership as financial secretary in June.
Like most hourly production workers hired after 2007, Drake wouldn’t have gotten a pension. Those hired before 2007 do after 30 years with the company, allowing them to more easily retire.
“When we hit 30 years, that will have a big impact. You know, your body's going to be broken down after 30 years of working in a factory,” she said.
Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on statewide issues.
The pensions are just one of several ways various “classes” of workers have seen their compensation differ following “concessions” the UAW made in the face of 2007’s automaker bankruptcy crisis.
“Those concessions were 13 years ago, right when I got hired,” Drake said. “They’ve made lots of money since then. So it's time to give back to the people that have made them the money.”
In interviews, older workers who do have pensions and other “first tier” benefits said they still wanted to fight for the younger generation. They said they did not like to see the people they work side-by-side with, sometimes doing the same job, get lower compensation.
“We're family. We're like the children of it,” Drake said. “You want your kids to do better or the same as you. So they definitely support it.”
Stellantis said the 300 temporary Kokomo layoffs are the result of the United Auto Workers union’s targeted strike at its assembly plant in Toledo, Ohio. UAW Local 1166 represents workers at one of the two affected plants.
“Everybody knows that is a byproduct. They don't have to be laid off. They chose to lay these people off,” said 1166 President Dave Willis.
The two of Stellantis' five Indiana plants are the Kokomo Transmission Plant, which has about 2,000 workers, and the Kokomo Casting Plant, which has more than 1,000 workers. Many of the parts they produce are used to make Jeeps in the Toledo assembly plant.
The company has another two transmission plants and an engine plant in the Kokomo area. Those plants have more than 3,000 workers combined.
Willis said the layoffs begin Monday with about 38 casting plant workers he represents. The other 250 or so will be laid off from the Kokomo Transmission Plant represented by local 685. As that looms, he said he wants Sunday’s practice picket to send Stellantis a message.
“Even after two weeks, look, we're not budging. Let's get to the table and talk and come to a fair agreement. That's all we're asking for,” he said, noting that local 685 organized the practice picket over the course of two days. “ And in a matter of two days, you see how many people are ready to stand on the picket line — if we have to. Nobody wants to, but we will for sure.”
Willis said affected workers won’t get unemployment because the company is labeling the strike as the cause in government filings. But he and other local union leaders said laid off workers won’t be left without pay. The union will give them strike pay for weeks they are off the job, according to Mandi Drake, financial secretary for Local 685.
This story has been updated.