It’s a ninety-five-degree day in mid-August and Bob, a thirty-four-year journeyman and shop steward in Englewood, camps outside South Chicago Dodge Chrysler Jeep with a simple sign that reads, “On strike. Auto Mechanics Local 701.”
Bob is among dozens of mechanics in Bronzeville, Englewood, Chicago Lawn, and Archer Heights picketing for eight hours a day, rain or shine, on the sidewalks and boulevards outside their shops.
“Nobody wants to be here; we all want to be working,” Bob said. “We’ll sit here as long as we have to.”
On August 1, more than 600 auto mechanics, all members of the International Association of Machinists Local 701, gathered in a union hall on the outskirts of Chicago to vote on whether to ratify proposed a four-year collective bargaining agreement that they say would not only effectively lower wages and increase workload, but also give disproportionate bargaining control to the car dealerships they work for.
Over ninety-seven percent of membership rejected the agreement, then voted to strike nearly unanimously, 597 to six. The next day, more than 800 mechanics walked off the job, shutting down service at fifty-six Chicagoland dealerships.
For the last six weeks, strikers have endured severe weather, a union-busting campaign, and thousands in lost wages, determined to stay out as long as it takes to win a fair contract.
By now, strikers have sacrificed more than a month of wages. The union strike fund only compensates them for one third of lost pay. “People didn’t really start feeling it until week four,” said Dan, an eighteen-year journeyman in Archer Heights. “Insurance drops, then [dealerships] start threatening to remove toolboxes.”
This tension is exacerbated by the New Car Dealers Committee (NCDC), a bargaining arm of the Chicago Auto Trade Association, which represents the dealerships. According to the union, on July 31, after months of inconsistent communication, the NCDC sent their proposal less than one hour before the previous agreement expired.
“There’s been no meaningful communication since [contract] expiration, besides online propaganda,” said Ronnie Gonzalez, a representative from Local 701.
On the picket, in their email, and mailed to their homes, mechanics say they routinely receive NCDC-produced ‘factsheets’ with titles such as “The High Cost of a Strike”—a reminder of how much each worker is losing in weekly wages—and “Your Right to Resign Union Membership.” These documents are also available on the NCDC’s website, which opens with the line “We’re sorry that you and your family have to go through another labor strike.”
According to both the union and NCDC, the three key points of dispute in negotiations are employer contributions to a health and welfare fund, changes to base pay guarantee, and a “Most Favored Nations” clause.
For incentive-based service technicians like Andres at Rogers Auto Group in Bronzeville, the NCDC’s proposed change to a base pay guarantee could mean drastic wage cuts and instability. While incentive-based mechanics work forty-hour weeks, they’re compensated by how much work they book in-shop.
If business is slow due to current new car shortages, dealer politics, or a pandemic, mechanics may not book forty hours of work, but under the previous contract, mechanics were guaranteed pay for at least thirty-six of these hours. Under the new contract, however, if Andres only books twenty hours of work, despite working in the shop for forty, he will only be paid for twenty.
“What if this week is bad? What if this week is slow?” Andres said, noting that dealers dispatch customers to mechanics, which has a direct impact on production.
The NCDC argues this guarantee is intended to improve productivity at shops and allow mechanics ‘more opportunities than ever to book hours and get paid more money’, but mechanics are skeptical. “They want to make sure they got a whole staff on their shop floor. And they don’t want to pay them,” Dan said.
Mechanics also object to a proposal that offers raises in lieu of increased contributions to employee health and welfare funds, which they say are already minimal. Car dealers “try to make it look good with a raise, but it doesn’t matter if you’re paying more into insurance anyway,” said Tony, an eight-year journeyman at Kingdom Chevy in Chicago Lawn. “Do you really take home a lot more?”
Even if these proposals were removed, mechanics say, the “Most Favored Nations” clause would undermine all collective bargaining agreements. The clause would allow dealers to adopt terms from any of the fifty-six other NCDC dealership contracts that it sees as “more favorable” at any point throughout the next four years. “If the employees at one single dealership vote in less favorable terms against the union’s recommendation,” wrote Gonzalez, then every other dealer could force those terms on their employees.
If a dealership in Naperville signs a contract with lower wages and no pension, a dealership in Chicago Lawn could immediately drop their wages and pension. “With that clause, nothing else matters either way,” said Tony.
Striking “has nothing to do with money,” said Mike, a journeyman and shop steward at Rogers Auto in Bronzeville. “It all has to do with [most favored nations] language that they’re trying to put in a contract, so they can take stuff away from us any time.”
“If they take something now, then they’re gonna keep going with that,” said Shorty, a journeyman at Metro Ford in Englewood. “They’re gonna keep taking away and taking away, and then there goes the union.”
While the NCDC claims Local 701 “seems intent on doing everything it could to hurt the dealerships,” some mechanics are concerned that dealerships are trying to hurt the union.
Many point to the Chicago Auto Trade Association having one of the nation’s largest labor relations law firms, Littler Mendelson, on retainer to advise dealerships during negotiations. Notorious for union-avoidance consulting, Littler Mendelson is reported to charge hourly rates as high as $700, and has provided legal services and consulting to McDonald’s and Uber during two of the largest labor battles in the last decade: the national fight for a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, and the campaign that opposed California’s Proposition 22, which made app-based gig workers exempt from receiving minimum wage, insurance, and collective bargaining rights.
Although only 129 of more than 400 dealerships in Chicagoland are unionized, many mechanics say the union is vital to raising standards across the industry. Several strikers have previously worked in non-union shops, and recount long days of low wages, no insurance, and being asked to attempt repairs well beyond their training and pay grade.
“It’s favoritism. There’s no set wage scale. There’s no standard,” said Sal, a journeyman’s apprentice at Ray’s Auto Service in Archer Heights. “There’s full-fledged journeymen that have been there for years only making like low twenties, eighteen [per hour].”
“When I started out, I started at independent shops. I was doing twelve-hour work shifts, six days a week,” Andres said. “That’s why we’re out here, making it better for everyone.”
As cars increasingly become more technologically advanced, the country is experiencing a labor shortage of skilled auto technicians. Mechanics on the picket line say they want to bring more young technicians into the trade, but that won’t happen until conditions improve.
Much like the larger 2017 strike, where over 2,000 mechanics shut down dealerships for seven weeks, Local 701 strikers aren’t on the picket alone. In solidarity with them, customers have refused to cross the picket, and neighbors and members of other locals, such as SEIU and CTU, have delivered food, water, and cash to the lines. “The moral support we’ve gotten is great,” Andres said. “It keeps us going.”
“Now more than ever, it seems like there’s less and less unions out there. And they really are looking out for us,” Sal said. The strike “is rough, it’s tough, but in the long run it’s worth it.”
Hannah Faris is a multimedia journalist in Chicago and an associate editor with The Wisconsin Idea, a rural reporting project by In These Times magazine. This is their first piece for the Weekly.