Dawnya Ferdinandsen worked odd jobs for years to make ends meet. She drove cars as a valet, worked in building maintenance and took restaurant gigs.
That changed in 2006: With the referral of a family friend, Ferdinandsen landed a job as a technician at an auto plant producing wheel bearings in Sandusky, Ohio. Working closely with engineers for long hours on the floor, she found the job physically intense but intellectually satisfying.
Most importantly, the job offered membership in the United Auto Workers union.
“I always wanted to be affiliated with a union somewhere, and that was my opportunity to get in,” Ferdinandsen says.
With the union contract came pensions, solid wages and healthcare for retirees, benefits Ferdinandsen viewed as a necessary exchange for laboring in a rough industry. “You come out with messed up backs, legs, feet, everything else,” she says. “You need medical, and they know that.”
In 2007, those promises were shattered. Delphi, a parts company that employed thousands of UAW members — including Ferdinandsen — had filed for bankruptcy two years prior. The agreement it reached with the UAW in 2007 made sweeping cuts to wages and pensions.
Ferdinandsen’s pension disappeared.
“We got played,” she says.
That same year, as the Big Three U.S. automakers — Ford, GM and Chrysler — argued that union benefits made competition with foreign manufacturers impossible, the UAW agreed to slash healthcare contributions and establish a second tier of work, along with lower wages and no pensions for new hires.
The yearslong crisis in the auto sector culminated during the 2009 recession with the dramatic bankruptcies and federal bailouts of GM and Chrysler. In bailout talks, the UAW agreed to deals that deepened cuts to retiree healthcare plans, eliminated job security provisions, did away with annual cost-of-living adjustments and relinquished the right to strike until 2015.
The UAW and the Big Three are once again in contentious contract negotiations. As autoworkers began a rolling strike in mid-September, the bailout of 2009 came back into focus as a symbol of workers’ previous sacrifices for the companies.
“I want to see them return what they promised to the workers that saved the company,” striking worker Bonita Burns told In These Times reporter Amie Stager on a Plymouth, Minn., picket line outside a Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) plant on September 22.
The 2009 givebacks have also become shorthand for the concessions the union made just before the crash, says labor historian and journalist Jeff Schuhrke.
Even President Joe Biden, who joined a picket line in Belleville, Mich., on September 26, opened a speech to striking workers by calling out the recession-era bailouts, which occurred when he was vice president. “The UAW, you saved the automobile industry back in 2008,” Biden said. “The companies were in trouble, but now they’re doing incredibly well, and guess what. You should be doing incredibly well too.”
For former Delphi workers like Michael Gale, the cuts began with the lost pay and reduced pensions from the 2007 bankruptcy deal. Those losses carried over for him and others who became GM workers when GM reabsorbed their plants during the 2009 bailout. On the pretext of saving jobs, the recession-era concessions traded away the wages, pensions and healthcare benefits that had characterized UAW contracts since the 1930s and ’40s.
For generations, workers had joined the auto sector for the assurance of a place in the middle class and a comfortable retirement. Within just a few years, that guarantee disappeared.
Many UAW members considered it a betrayal by union leadership.
This is a segment of an article that originally appeared in full at In These Times on Oct. 12, 2023. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Alice Herman is a journalist covering politics and labor in the Midwest. She is a contributing reporter at the Guardian US and a former investigative reporting fellow with In These Times.