Some striking UAW members carry family legacies

Corey Williams and Aisha I. Jefferson/The Associated Press | 11/2/2023, 6 p.m.
As Britney Johnson paced the picket line outside Ford’s Wayne Assembly plant, she wasn’t just carrying a sign demanding higher …

WAYNE, Mich. - As Britney Johnson paced the picket line outside Ford’s Wayne Assembly plant, she wasn’t just carrying a sign demanding higher pay and other changes.

Autoworker jobs have long been a pillar of the Black middle class in America, and the strikes and the fight for higher wages have had even deeper significance for workers like Johnson.

Ms. Johnson’s great-grand-father, grandfather and mother all worked on assembly lines for one or more of Detroit’s automakers, as did some of her uncles.

“We told her she’s representing our family,” Ms. Johnson’s mother, Tracy Brooks, jokes.

It seems the efforts of Ms. Johnson and her co-workers are starting to pay off. All striking Ford workers were called last week by the United Auto Workers to return to their jobs after the union said it reached a tentative contract agreement with Ford that would give them a 25% general wage increase, plus cost of living raises that will put the pay increase over 30%, to above $40 per hour for top-scale assembly plant workers by the end of the contract. Union members still must approve the deal.

Ford’s deal was followed Saturday by a similar one with Stellantis and one Monday with General Motors that could end the nearly six-week-old strikes that at the peak saw about 46,000 workers walk off their jobs and thousands more laid off.

Union wages, and the battles to keep them, have elevated the fortunes of countless Black families, Ms. Brooks said. Ms. Brooks’ grandfather, Bobbie Allen Sr., left Texas in the early to mid-1900s and found work at Ford Motor Co.

Despite having only an eighth-grade education, Mr. Allen was able to build homes, buy 40 acres of land in rural south-eastern Michigan, purchase luxury cars and take his family on vacations.

“It meant a lot, being in the union,” Ms. Brooks said. “Those were the good jobs that were available for Blacks. They knew they could go in there and work hard, make money and obtain things like homes and cars. It allowed them to have the ability to take care of their families and help to build that Black middle class.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a “significant rise” in the Black middle class nationwide, particularly in Detroit and other metro areas, said Dr. Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, a program at the public policy nonprofit, the Brookings Institution.

Black people were able to buy homes in urban neighborhoods that were once predominantly white.

“Black people could take advantage of that and buy homes in neighborhoods throughout Detroit,” Dr. Perry said. “And as a consequence, you had also thriving commercial corridors, businesses and other ancillary enterprises that supported the rise in income among Black workers.”

The union provided protection for Black workers who historically faced harsher treatment in the workplace than their white colleagues, Ms. Brooks added.

“Without the union jobs, (employers) can do anything, say anything and you’re out the door,” she said. “At least with the union, you have some type of cushion.”

Ms. Brooks, 61, was in her early 30s when she began working the assembly line at what was then Daimler Chrysler. Her seven years in that job helped pay for her training to become a preschool teacher and buy a home.

“(My grandfather’s) goal was to have his own property,” Ms. Brooks said. “It was his, that no one could take and he worked hard to get that. Being able to own land and property, that was one of the things that was emphasized with us — that property was money.”

Giving city residents the chance to earn a good living and buy homes in Detroit was included in a 2019 land development deal with Fiat Chrysler, which merged with

PSA Peugeot in 2021 to form Stellantis. Detroit required the automaker to hire more than

3,800 residents for its new assembly plant in the city, with pay starting at $17 per hour, climbing to $28.

“What we want is for people to own homes and raise families in this city,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in 2019. “If you’re making $60,000 you can get a nice house in the city of Detroit.”

The auto industry and union jobs have been “so important to our quality of life and economic future here in Detroit,” said Anika Goss, chief executive officer of Detroit Future City, a nonprofit focused on improving the lives of the city’s residents through community and economic development.

As the auto industry muddled through downturns, car buyers’ shifting tastes and the migration of jobs overseas, cities dependent on manufacturing jobs suffered.

In 1980, there were 84,920 people in Detroit employed as machine operators and laborers, according to U.S. Census data.

A decade later, that number had dropped to 52,316.

The Chicago and Detroit metropolitan areas each lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs between 1995 and 2005, the Brookings Institution wrote in 2006.

Currently, individuals and families earning between $55,000-$139,000 are in the middle-class income bracket.

Only about 25% of Detroit’s residents are in that range, and about two-thirds of city residents earn less than $50,000 per year, Ms. Goss said.

Yolanda Martin, 55, is a second-generation Ford employee who has spent 34 years with the company. She said a two-tier wage system prevents newer employees from making the same financial gains as legacy autoworkers like herself and her late father, who spent 40 years at Ford.

“That is something that I believe is so detrimental to the middle class. It basically wiped out the opportunity for them to be able to make those” higher salaries, said Ms. Martin, who has held various positions at Ford and is currently apprenticing to become an industrial electrician.

Ms. Martin described her childhood during the 1970s and 1980s in her predominantly Black Detroit neighborhood as among the “happiest times” of her life. The Grandmont-Rosedale community was safe, had plenty of shopping and entertainment, and residents looked out for one another. Families usually had two parents and regularly took vacations, and most children received a new car once they learned how to drive because at least one parent worked for an automaker, she explained.

The community is still strong today and unlike other areas of Detroit, Grandmont-Rosedale staved off blight and maintained its resiliency, according to Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, adding that 92% of the neighborhood’s residents are Black.

Now living in Novi, an upper middle-class suburb about 28 miles northwest of Detroit, Ms. Martin worries that future generations of autoworkers won’t be able to afford to live in nicer communities or send their children to better schools.

“I shouldn’t be working next to a person who makes half of what I make, and they’re doing the exact same thing,” Ms. Martin said. “And that’s what I think the fight is about, to kind of bring it to where we’re all on an even playing field.”