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Despite a new contract and healthy pay hikes, some Stellantis workers aren’t happy

By Luke Ramseth, The Detroit News
Published: June 9, 2024, 6:00am

TOLEDO, Ohio — After securing a landmark new labor contract last fall, it has been a rocky few months for workers at the Stellantis NV plant that builds the Jeep Wrangler SUV and Gladiator pickup.

Stellantis terminated hundreds of the facility’s lower-paid supplemental workers. Hundreds more were reassigned to plants in the Detroit area. Instead of a better work-life balance under the new contract, some Jeep workers say they now have a less-flexible schedule that often requires six-day weeks. They recently completed a grueling, weekslong stretch of mandatory overtime in Toledo to make up for a Wrangler production shortfall.

It’s added up to low morale and a feeling of being stretched thin, workers and local United Auto Workers officials said. During last fall’s UAW strikes, no plant’s workers were on the picket line longer than the approximately 5,000 at the Toledo Assembly Complex.

“They continue to push for cost-cutting,” Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12, which represents employees at the Toledo plant, said of Stellantis. “They’re putting pressure on our guys to do more work with less people. It hurts morale when there’s that kind of pressure.”

The Jeep plant isn’t the only Stellantis facility with complaints, even after the company’s workers won big wage increases and other benefits last fall. Layoffs and other cost-cutting measures have hit several plants, and there are lingering concerns of more staffing cuts to come. Schedule changes have also been a source of frustration at other facilities. And health and safety concerns are a topic of discussion, with workers at the Warren Stamping Plant last month voting to authorize a strike, if needed, over issues ranging from flooding to ventilation.

Stellantis acknowledges it is in cost-cutting mode as it seeks to be competitive amid the electric vehicle transition and as it deals with higher labor costs of the new UAW contract. It’s reviewing operations at its U.S. plants and said in late April that it expected “indefinite layoffs” at its facilities “over the coming months.” Chief Financial Officer Natalie Knight told analysts after the first quarter that the company plans to “continue to optimize our labor costs.” The automaker said Monday it didn’t have an update on those operational reviews or layoff plans.

Last Wednesday, UAW President Shawn Fain removed Vice President Rich Boyer from his role overseeing the union’s Stellantis department. In a letter sent to union leaders, Fain said the move was necessary to fight the company’s recent job cuts and other moves more aggressively. Fain’s office will now oversee Stellantis-related decision-making, with a top administrative assistant, Kevin Gotinsky, taking the top leadership role.

“Over the past several months, since we settled our 2023 contract, we have heard our Stellantis members loud and clear: this company is running roughshod over our agreement and over our membership,” Fain said in the letter, adding the change was about “serving our membership to the highest standards.” He said the change wasn’t personal and called Boyer a friend.

“This company is eager to undo the gains of our historic 2023 agreement,” Fain added. “We have ended the permanent abuse of temporary workers; they want to turn that into mass layoffs. We have won historic product commitments; they want to undermine that with cuts elsewhere. That is unacceptable, and it is our union’s duty to fight back as a united membership and leadership.”

Boyer declined to comment on the letter.

“Stellantis remains true to the commitments we made during the 2023 contract negotiations and continues to work collaboratively and constructively with the UAW,” company spokesperson Ann Marie Fortunate said in an email.

Marick Masters, a professor emeritus of business at Wayne State University and a UAW expert, said it’s not surprising that Stellantis has sought to cut costs including by trimming its workforce, to make up for the higher labor costs of the new UAW contract. The alternative would be to pass the higher costs on to the consumer, he said.

“Anybody that didn’t anticipate this coming was being a little bit naive about the realities of business,” Masters said.

It also makes sense that the UAW wants to more vigorously resist some of Stellantis’ moves, including layoffs, and show that it is being responsive and transparent with concerned members, he said. Fain appears to be signaling he’s ready to do this by reassigning responsibility over the Stellantis department, the professor noted.

“For collective-bargaining agreements to have full meaning, the union must administer them with as much diligence as paid to their negotiation,” Masters said. “In the case of Stellantis, UAW members believe that the company has failed to live up to its agreement.”

At the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, which builds Ram 1500 pickups, UAW Local President Michael Spencer said about 300 supplemental workers were let go earlier this year. Nearly 200 full-time employees were laid off in April but were later brought back.

Spencer said he’s concerned that more job reductions could be on the horizon, perhaps as many as several hundred by the end of the year, though some cuts could be avoided depending on the staffing levels needed for a new battery-powered Ram to be built at the plant.

At Stellantis’ Warren Stamping Plant, workers in early May voted to allow union leaders to call for a strike if necessary over health and safety concerns at the facility. There were also frustrations over the use of outside contractors. Workers at the plant previously voted this spring to authorize a strike over a separate issue related to an expired local union contract.

“We want members to understand they’re not just a number or just a body on the line. They will come to work and feel like they have some ownership in that building,” Romaine McKinney III, president of UAW Local 869, said of his Warren Stamping membership after they authorized the strike last month. He couldn’t be reached for an update on the health and safety concerns. A union spokesperson did not have an update on the situation Monday. Stellantis said Monday that it has “resolved all health and safety grievances at the plant,” and that it remains committed to a safe and healthy work environment for its workers.

Eric Graham, president-elect of UAW Local 140, which represents workers at the Warren Truck Assembly Plant, said the facility that builds the Jeep Wagoneer and Ram 1500 Classic has been running smoothly and hasn’t dealt with the layoffs issued at other plants so far this year. But he said he worried about the potential for deep job cuts in the next few months, depending on whether Stellantis puts a new vehicle into the plant after the 1500 Classic goes away later this year.

“That would be really bad,” if nothing arrives to backfill the pickup, Graham said. “We’re hoping for something, anything, to come down the pike, to sustain us and have two shifts.”

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Frustration at several plants, including Toledo Jeep, centers on the treatment of low-paid supplemental workers, also known as temps. The new contract secured better starting wages for them and ensured thousands would eventually be converted to full-time employment status.

But since the contract was signed, hundreds have been terminated as well. The Stellantis spokesperson, Fortunate, said employment levels are “fluid,” and the company does plan to hire back some supplemental workers this summer to cover increased vacation time.

At Toledo Jeep, the company agreed to convert 900 supplemental workers to full-time status, with top wages and benefits. But instead of keeping them at the plant to potentially help staff a third shift — as union officials initially expected could happen under the new contract — many were sent to other plants in the Detroit area. Some 341 additional supplementals were terminated.

As of last week, the Toledo plant had more than 200 supplemental workers on the payroll, down from at least 1,100 at its peak. That’s meant less scheduling flexibility for the full-time workers, who previously could take certain days off as needed, thanks to the temps filling scheduling gaps.

But now Jeep workers routinely pull six nine-hour shifts each week. And that was temporarily upped to mandatory 10-hour days, for up to seven-days per week, earlier this spring as Stellantis sought to make up for Wrangler production lost due to a seat supplier dispute.

About 600 Jeep workers signed a petition demanding reinstatement of the temps, which was delivered to management earlier this spring, said Ben Hinsey, who has worked at the plant for seven years and helped lead the effort.

“People are very upset and down,” he said of morale at the facility, adding many workers had believed they would have a better work-life balance under the new contract. “We won a lot of big stuff (in the strike), but a lot of that stuff requires engaged leadership.”

He said the plant’s current lean staffing “is not sustainable long-term.”

“We’re exhausted,” said Stephen Hinojosa, a production team leader.

Workers said there have also been more stringent crackdowns on certain plant rules, some of them perceived to be minor, which is also causing low morale on top of the scheduling changes and heavier workloads. “It’s like extreme policing, where they’re walking the line all the time,” Hinojosa said.

“Our members take a lot of pride in the work that they do,” said Baumhower, the Local 12 president. “And the company has to make sure that they have ample time to complete their assignment.”