Sweat Stained Review: Confessions of a Blue Collar Misfit
A Temporary Union Autoworker
By Dan Denton
I promised some of my UAW family, that are on strike at the Toledo Jeep Plant, that I would write a column about what life is like for a temporary part time UAW worker, and even if I’m way late on getting it written, I try to be who I say I am.
I don’t know when the big 3 automakers and the UAW started using temporary workers, but I know that before I got hired in 2013, the temps used to make about the same hourly wage as full-timers, they just got less benefits, and no vacation or retirement. It’s how you got your foot in the UAW door.
During the bankruptcy and recession of 2008, and the subsequent contracts and bailouts, those part-timers got royally fucked.
In 2008 and 2009, when the government bailed out Chrysler and GM, and Ford nearly went bankrupt, too, part of the bail out agreement was that the UAW must accept a two tier wage system where new autoworkers would make about half of the hourly wage of the traditional UAW ones. The part-timers were all forced to roll over to full-time, at that new $15.78 an hour pay grade, losing nearly $14 an hour in wages. Many of them sued both the company and the UAW over that shit, but they never found justice.
The Toledo Assembly Complex, where I worked for 10 years, is unique amongst all auto factories. They almost always run a “40/50/60” work schedule program, the only union auto plant in America that uses it, where 1/3 of each assembly team’s full time operators can select to take Monday, Friday or Saturday as unpaid days off. It’s supposed to allow workers a choice to work either 40, 50, or 60 hours a week, but it never has quite worked like that. And the Toledo complex uses an extraordinary amount of part time employees to cover those days off. Around 1,600 to 1,800 if my memory serves me right. It’s been 15 months since I was a chief steward there.
When I was hired, I got lucky. They needed to hire a complete afternoon shift of workers at once, and I was one of about 3,000 new autoworkers hired in off the street straight to full time. After 90 days worked, we had union seniority, the most important thing in your union career.
After our first year of work they implemented that 40/50/60 carousel, and the only way you could get in the door at Toledo Jeep since 2014 was by accepting a part time job.
In 2013 the union contract referred to them as “TPTs,” Temporary Part Time workers. In 2015, us new full timers got an 8 year bridge to close the gap in our hourly wages. After 8 years of seniority, we’d be at the top scale that traditional workers earned. The TPTs were renamed “TE’s,” temporary employees. Their wages stayed at that two tier wage, but worse. The TE’s hired prior to 2015 topped out at $22 something an hour, the new hires would top out at $19.19, creating yet another tier of worker.
In 2019 the TE’s were once again rebranded, this time as “SEs” supplemental employees. They got a little better insurance, a few paid days off a year, and for the first time ever, a disciplinary, and attendance procedure that allowed them the safety net of two write ups before termination, when prior to that, a boss could fire them for nearly any attendance or performance infraction.
The part time workers have always paid the same two and a half hours of wages that seniority employees pay, but for less than half of the same union rights and protections. They have few rights, and can be scheduled to work seven days a week, 12 or more hours a day, and can be sent to any shift, to any department.
When I served as a chief union steward, I spent an inordinate amount of my time fighting to take care of the Supplemental Employees in my area. Our union contract allowed for one steward per 300 employees, but they don’t count the SEs in that total, so each of the three stewards in my department, the day shift JL wrangler assembly department, were tasked with representing 450 or more workers. Something as simple as getting an SE a Monday, Friday, or Saturday off work to care for a sick child, or attend a doctor appointment or child’s event, was sometimes an insurmountable task, and then attendance would get bad, and the company would “schedule” the SEs to work everyday, six or seven days a week, and we stewards would be fighting like hell for weeks to take care of the ones that were in college, or had second jobs.
Often, if a supplemental employee got terminated, us union reps could get their job back the next time the company was crunched for workers, but they’d have to start back over on the bottom of the wage game.
One time, the company fired 89 SEs on a single day. All of them had attendance marks, so the company turned their badges off, and the chief stewards were left to be the one answering phone calls explaining why the company was firing them. That was the absolute worst part of my job. Being a union steward with a cowardly Human Resources department that didn’t have to courage to fire their employees. They just turned their work badges off, and as a union steward, everyone knows, the steward is the first person you call when you have an issue. You know how many times I got cussed at because the company I worked for didn’t give a fuck about their workers?
They fired 89 SEs in one day. There were 90 on the list, but my union chairman and I were able to get one worker spared. That worker had missed days to get cancer treatments. HR agreed to let them stay employed. How generous. Yes, these are the motherfucking corporate fucks the UAW is striking against right now.
After that 89 person employment slaughter, myself and my office mate, chief steward Mark Kidd, yes I’m naming names here, because Mark Kidd is one if the best union reps I’ve ever worked with in my life, love ya Mark. Mark and I started battling with HR, and urging our committee to file a grievance. The company never issued paper write ups to those that were fired for attendance, as the new 2019 agreement spelled out. Eventually a grievance was filed, and in the true ineptitude of bureaucracy, it took months to settle, and the settlement was the same as always. Many got their job back, but had to start over on the pay scale.
Another time, the company forced all supplemental employees in to work on a double time Sunday. Sunday overtime is always voluntary for full-timers, except in the most critical of times, and the company can only use the critical card once every four years. But SEs can be forced to work everyday. There were a handful of part time workers that couldn’t work that particular day. One had concert plans out of town. He’d been with the company three years. One was sick and had an ER note.
The shift manager, knowing that he couldn’t fire them for one occurrence after we’d just “won” the last grievance, simply unscheduled every SE that missed that day. By removing them from the schedule indefinitely, he wasn’t firing them, or laying them off. Me and the other two department stewards fought like hell to get them all back in the door the following week, and we did, but such is the struggle of the part time UAW worker.
One of the most brutal things I witnessed in my time as a union steward, was when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, and we were off two months. The first few weeks back, the company allowed leeway for single parents to miss work due to a lack of available childcare. Most daycares were closed down. Eventually, I watched the company systematically fire dozens of single moms, most of them SEs, because they couldn’t find a daycare, or babysitter for their kids. I was able to find some Backdoor channels amongst management that allowed for many of the ones I represented to get “unscheduled” using that piece of shit boss’ own tactics against him, right under his nose. But many fell through the cracks that I couldn’t save, and it’s one of the times I’ll always regret not being able to do more. Answering those phone calls made it hard to look in the mirror at night.
Mind you, during all of these wars with management and HR, I was still dealing with the daily deaths in the families, illnesses, births, vacation requests and other things that union stewards are supposed to help their members with. I was fighting daily with company engineers that were trying to cut jobs on the assembly line. I was fighting with prick bosses to leave my people alone, and just let them do what they’re employed to do: build Jeeps. That job as a union steward consumed most of my daily life, especially when COVID hit, but even that stress that almost killed me was better than being a part timer. When I wound up on two blood pressure meds, and feeling suicidal from all the stress, and a lot of family things going on that I still don’t talk about, and found myself going through a divorce and losing the entire life I’d worked hard to build, well my seniority allowed me to take paid time off to treat my mental health and other ailments. Something SEs don’t get. They can’t even get unemployment when they’re off work on sick leave, because they’re not unemployed. Imagine, working in a union, getting sick and needing surgery, and missing a month’s worth of paychecks. Worse yet, the current expired union agreement allows the company to terminate their health insurance if they’re not on active roll at the beginning of the next month. What a fucking heartless corporation.
I hope UAW president Shawn Fain, a man I wholeheartedly supported for the job, and his teams of negotiators can do better by our part time brothers and sisters. It’s time they get treated like real union workers, and not disposable bodies on an assembly line.
The UAW strike is more than four weeks long now. It’s cold outside. In Toledo, my union family desperately needs firewood donations. I’m sure there’s a picket line near you in need of support, too. Please help if you can.
Dan Denton is a former union auto worker, and chief union steward turned full-time writer. He quit the Jeep plant to live in a travel trailer and chase a starving artist life. He hasn’t went hungry yet. His novel The Dead and the Desperate is shipping now from Roadside Press.