The small town of Wayne, Michigan becomes a battleground for the UAW-Big Three

Ford Motor announced that 600 non-striking workers have been temporarily laid off, hours after workers in a separate part of the plant walked off the job early this morning. Leaders of the United Auto Workers tapped workers there early Friday to start a historic strike against the BigThree automakers, drawing national attention to the small town of Wayne, Michigan.

The Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne is one of three locations operated by each of Detroit’s three automakers selected by the UAW for targeted strikes against the Big Three, after failing to reach a new agreement no later than Thursday evening. Workers at a General Motors plant in Wentzville, Missouri, and a Stellantis plant in Toledo, Ohio, were also ordered by union leaders to walk off their posts.

Ford said in a statement that the 600 workers it laid off are tied to work stoppages caused by those who did not come to work Friday because of the UAW strike.

“This layoff is a consequence of the strike at Michigan Assembly Plant’s final assembly and painting departments because the components built by these 600 workers use materials that must be e-coated for protection,” Ford said in a statement Friday. “E-coating is finished in the painting department, which is on strike.”

Wayne, Michigan, with a population of about 17,000, is a suburb about 45 minutes west of Detroit made up mostly of working-class and middle-class families. The Ford plant there employs about 3,300 workers, most of whom make Bronco SUVs and Ranger midsize pickup trucks. UAW President Shawn Fain visited the Wayne plant Friday and said the union’s strike will continue until Ford, GM and Stellantis (which own Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram) pay workers better wages.

APTOPIX auto workers strike
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain joins union members on strike at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., early Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

Paul Sancya / AP

The Wayne plant feels like two separate worlds, said Pete Gruich, 56, who has worked there for 25 years.

The facility is divided into a body shop on one side and an assembly line on the other. The body side is a slower-paced environment where the entire body painting process takes place, Gruich said. The final collection has “a frantic pace and there is no downtime,” he told CBS MoneyWatch.

“When someone takes time off at the final (assembly), it takes two people to do that job, sometimes three because the jobs are so congested,” he said.

Gruich said there is also division among employees, between those who earn higher wages and those who earn less. That’s because managers tell lower-level workers they’ll move them to the top-level salaries when a top-level worker retires, but that rarely happens, Gruich said.

Tensions were high at the plant for weeks leading up to the strike, Gruich said. On Thursday night, employees, all members of the UAW’s Local 900, got very little work done and were anxious to see how labor negotiations would play out, he said.

Pete Gruich has been employed at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan for 25 years. He poses for a photo with UAW President Shawn Fain after Local 900 started a strike against the three major Detroit automakers.

Pete Gruich

“We pretty much just sat all night until 10 o’clock when Fain decided to knock off half of our facility,” he said.

Gruich said shortly after Fain chose their union to strike, managers allowed employees to leave their workstations.

“We were kept in the cafeteria until midnight (and) then they allowed us to go out,” he said. “No one was allowed to go back on the floor at that time.”

Once we were outside, the songs started, Gruich said. Younger workers were more energetic and animated, while people with more seniority took the stage quietly, he said.

Fain has not said why UAW management chose the Wayne plant as one of the first three. Gruich said he believes that’s because workers at the Wayne plant also make parts for seven other plants in the Midwest — plants that make the Ford Escape, F-250, F-350 and dashboards for the F-150. The parts manufacturing side of Wayne is still operating, but the union may ask those workers to walk out as well, Gruich said.

“After a week or two of Ford not negotiating, they end up shutting down the rest of the plant,” he said. “And that, in turn, will close six or seven other plants.”

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