By Tom Peterson, Michigan Advance
Workers stand in a line on strike outside the Kentucky Truck Plant. // Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer
LOUISVILLE — Tim Heil never expected Ford’s most profitable plant to go on strike, yet he and dozens of others were on the picket line in front of the sprawling Kentucky Truck Plant.
The walkout of about 8,700 workers in Kentucky came as a surprise after United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain said that Ford hadn’t “gotten the message” in ongoing contract negotiations.
Ford considers the Louisville plant, which produces Super Duty trucks and SUVS, to be one of the most important in the world. Kentucky Truck Plant brings in revenue of about $25 billion annually, according to Ford, equivalent to the annual revenue of Southwest Airlines, which is why Heil thought the company would agree to what he considers reasonable union demands to avoid a strike in Louisville.
The CEO of Ford Blue, the company’s gas-powered vehicle division, told media that pensions and battery plants were on the table when Fain halted talks and called on the thousands of unionized workers at the Kentucky Truck Plant to walk off the job, the latest in a month-long strike as the UAW has selectively called on some plants and facilities to strike while others remain operating. The Kentucky action brings the number of striking UAW members to 33,700.
As automakers begin to transition production to electric vehicles, the UAW wants to ensure the transition is fair to workers. Fain announced last week that automaker GM had added its battery plants to the UAW’s national contract, ensuring that the plants would be unionized. The UAW is pushing Ford to do the same.
Ford and the South Korean company SK On are jointly building battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee. The companies on Wednesday upped the wages being offered at those plants above what had previously been announced.
Kumar Galhotra, the CEO of Ford Blue, said negotiations on the battery plants in particular were “not a straightforward proposition.”
“The plants aren’t even built yet. And we haven’t hired the workforce yet. The workforce isn’t unionized yet,” Galhotra said. “We are very open to working with them on their way forward on the battery plants.”
When asked what constraints would prevent Ford from adding battery plants to the UAW national contract, Galhotra said there were “multiple differences” between GM and Ford but he didn’t know the details of the UAW’s deal with GM on the battery plants.
Kenneth Suschank (left) and Ronny Davidson (right) striking outside the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville. // Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer
Heil, 59, one of the picketing Kentucky Truck Plant workers, said he is also thinking about the future of his fellow auto workers. He’s sacrificed his body over 28 years, the manual labor keeping him on his feet and wearing out his joints; he’s had surgery on his neck and knee over the decades. Ultimately, he’s thinking about retirement in a couple of years.
He said he’s really striking for the new workers, including those with young families, starting their careers at the plant. The UAW made concessions to Ford during the Great Recession to keep the company afloat while other automakers took government bailouts. Aspects of their contract then such as a cost of living adjustments to keep up with inflation haven’t been reinstated.
“I thought the cost of living (increase) was something that was going to be there throughout my whole career. But it wasn’t,” Heil said.
The Kentucky Truck Plant’s closure could have a ripple effect across its more than 600 parts suppliers, according to Ford executives. Thirteen other plants, including the nearby Louisville Assembly Plant, are connected in the supply chain.
Cindy Pence, 28, who was with another group of striking workers on the picket line Thursday morning, said rural counties surrounding Louisville also feel the ripples because they rely on the production and jobs created by Kentucky Truck Plant.
She said her grandfather worked at the plant when it first opened in 1969, but the job no longer has the same pay and prestige.
“It used to be a job, especially in small communities where I’m from, they’re like, ‘Wow, you got that job. Like, that’s a good job.’ And now it’s almost embarrassing,” she said.
Liam Niemeyer covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.
The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service. We’re based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat. We focus on how decisions made in the marble halls of power ripple through the lives of Kentuckians. We bring attention to injustices and hold institutions and officials accountable. We tell the stories of Kentuckians who are making a difference and shine a light on what’s working. Our journalism is aimed at building a fairer, healthier Kentucky for all.
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