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Column: ‘Historic’ UAW strike, indeed — Jeep workers strike in Toledo is somehow a first

Column: ‘Historic’ UAW strike, indeed — Jeep workers strike in Toledo is somehow a first

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After more than a century of automaking and 90 years of UAW representation, the “stand-up strike” appears to be Toledo Jeep’s first walkout as part of a national contract dispute.

Reporter covering Toyota and Volkswagen for Automotive News

Willys Overland (later Jeep Parkway) plant, 1908-2001.

TOLEDO — The UAW’s first simultaneous strike against all of the Detroit 3 is certainly historic, but here in the town where Jeep was born and helped win a World War — where 5,800 workers walked off their jobs at midnight Friday — it is doubly so.

Why? Because Friday’s walkout appears to have marked the first time that the men and women building Jeeps and their predecessor vehicles in union-friendly Toledo over more than a century have ever gone on strike as part of a national contract.

It’s not that UAW members in Toledo have never struck; they have, frequently, including members of nearby Local 14 who went on strike against General Motors in 2019 during the UAW’s last round of national bargaining.

And members of UAW Local 12 — an amalgamated local now with more than 10,000 members, including the 5,800 at Toledo Jeep Assembly, that is among the largest UAW locals in the country — have frequently called job actions.

Former Jeep unit Chairman Ron Conrad Sr., who started at Jeep in 1973, told Automotive News that the union had called an occasional wildcat strike, where workers would walk off the job temporarily, usually for a few hours, to protest a company action, especially during the turbulent era when the automaker was owned by the former American Motors Corp. Indeed, members of Local 12 struck battery supplier Clarios in May for more than a month this year before winning a new contract.

But Local 12 had never struck Jeep, its largest unit, where it has represented workers since the local was founded in 1933 and the employer was Willys-Overland, despite at least eight changes in corporate ownership, three different assembly plants, and across millions of vehicles. At least as part of a national contract dispute.

Until early Friday morning, that is.

UAW President Shawn Fain declined to say why current UAW leaders chose Toledo Jeep Assembly to represent Stellantis in the union’s first “stand-up strike” against the Detroit 3, along with General Motors’ Wentzville Assembly plant in Missouri and Ford Motor Co.’s Michigan Assembly complex in Wayne, Mich.

“We’ve got to start somewhere and it’s all about strategy. I’m not going to get into our strategies, but we’ve got a lot of smart people,” Fain said. “We have a strategy we’ve mapped out and we have a playbook we’re going to play by. This is up to the companies. If they come to the pump and take care of their workers we’ll come back to work. But if they don’t, we’ll keep amping it up.”

How Toledo Jeep workers never struck is at least as intriguing historically as is why they are striking now.

Local 12 was organized in 1933 in part by workers at Willys-Overland, which had just 20 years earlier been the nation’s second-largest automaker behind Ford Motor Co., but which was now struggling through the Great Depression. Through constant reorganizations and retrenchments, the automaker survived, but was never in good financial shape, until its fortunes changed with the development of and contract to produce the Willys MB in November 1940.

Toledo produced tens of thousands of those original Jeeps, and the vehicle was credited for helping win WWII for their durability and nearly unsoppable capabilities. The Willys MB remains the touchstone for the Jeeps of today, especially the Wrangler SUV and Gladiator pickup currently made in Toledo.

With World War II raging in Europe and an important part of the war effort to produce, there was little to no appetite for disruptive strikes at Willys-Overland until at least hostilities had ceased overseas. And after the war, longtime UAW President Walter Reuther committed the labor union to a decades-long strategy of pattern bargaining with automakers: Choosing a target, usually the Detroit automaker with the deepest pockets, and hammering out agreements — sometimes with the help of strikes — that would be adapted to the remaining automakers.

While Reuther’s strategy undoubtedly benefited workers making Jeeps in Toledo, their relatively tiny slice of the U.S. auto industry and meager comparable profitability meant that in the post-war decades that followed, the “target” for each UAW round of negotiations was always affixed to other automakers.

Through its various corporate owners between World War II and 1987 — Toledo’s Jeep operations transferred from Willys-Overland to Kaiser (1953) to American Motors (1970) — Toledo’s Jeep plant wasn’t a part of what was then known as “The Big Three” until it was purchased by Chrysler Corp. in 1987.

Bradley J. Sommer, who holds a PhD in American history from Carnegie Mellon University and specializes in Toledo labor history, said the UAW’s historically strong presence in Toledo and its active longtime participation in a local Labor Management Citizens Committee to head off conflicts helped keep labor peace.

“I think that there was sort of a fear of the UAW striking that sort of led some of the automotive companies in Toledo to not necessarily give in, but not necessarily do some of the stuff that maybe you saw some of the Big Three employers doing,” said Sommer, who is a research historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C. “I also think the UAW’s participation in the Labor Management Citizens Committee sort of tempered some of the more radical elements within the union. If you look at Toledo in that period, there were a lot of strikes, but they’re generally smaller strikes from smaller unions.”


Jeep worker Margaret Drummer: “This is the first time for me.”

Even under Chrysler’s ownership, Jeep workers in Toledo were treated differently by the UAW until relatively recently.

Jeep workers had maintained their own contract with Chrysler — a holdover of Chrysler’s purchase of American Motors — until 2015, when they were finally folded into the national agreement covering what were then other FCA plants. And in 2015 and 2019, when they could have gone out on strike under the national agreement, UAW leadership chose different strategies.

That’s how Margaret Drummer, who has made Jeeps for 30 years in Toledo, could take her first steps on a picket line early Friday morning and truthfully tell this reporter:

“This is the first time for me.”

You may email Larry P. Vellequette at [email protected]. He was a reporter in Toledo for 25 years before joining Automotive News. Staff Reporter Michael D. Martinez contributed to this article.

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