KOKOMO, Ind. — At a union hall here in United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain’s hometown, a half-eaten pizza and a bag of Werther’s Original candies were spread out across a conference room table. Uncertainty about what would happen next — and frustration with the Democratic president, Joe Biden — hung in the air.
It was just after 9 p.m. on Thursday, and a dozen or so of the 150,000 union members employed by the Big Three automakers huddled at the Local 685, waiting on word from Fain ahead of an 11:59 p.m. expiration of their contract. Along with their fellow union members in this blue-collar city surrounded by farmland, they wanted the automakers — Stellantis, Ford and General Motors — to make concessions on pay, benefits and the workweek.
“Forty-five minutes — showtime,” said Garry Quirk, the president of the local.
Quirk, 60, had spent half his life as an auto worker in Kokomo, where he was born and raised. Before that, he’d worked in a meatpacking plant and served a stint in the U.S. Army. Now, for the first time in his three decades, Quirk was waiting to hear whether his union would participate in a targeted strike against all of the Big Three automakers. He’d spent the last day arranging for enough porta potties for his workers to survive hours-long picket-line shifts — to the tune of $2,000 a month. Earlier in the afternoon, he mowed his yard and downed a Monster Energy Drink.
Depending on how things shook out in less than an hour, Quirk might soon be on the picket lines.
At that moment, though, Quirk was preparing for Fain to livestream his decision about which plants would strike if an agreement wasn’t reached by midnight.
Would Fain, the Kokomo native who had risen through the ranks alongside Quirk, make a point out of one of his hometown locals, and have it lead the targeted strike?
“I wish I knew,” Quirk said. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here.”
Quirk sunk into his seat inside a conference room in the union hall and thumbed his phone before looking back up at the TV. A CNN chyron read: “AUTOWORKERS ON BRINK OF HISTORIC WALKOUT”.
Had Fain asked for too much? A 40 percent wage increase over the next four years?
“I think he did,” Quirk said. “And I think he set high standards and I think everybody knows that you gotta shoot high and then you can always go lower. In the past, we’ve always set low and we’ve settled for crumbs.” Quirk voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and then Donald Trump in 2020.
Had President Joe Biden, the self-described “most pro-union president in American history,” done enough to forestall a strike?
“I don’t know what he’s done,” Quirk said. “Ask him. I don’t think he knows what he’s done. Seriously. I’m not trying to be mean.” Quirk wasn’t freelancing: Fain and the union haven’t yet endorsed Biden’s reelection, throwing into doubt Biden’s standing in autoworker-heavy communities like his.
But his efforts weren’t resonating inside the union hall. Next to Quirk sat another committee member, Denny Butler. At 52, he was born in this town and would likely die in this town. Earlier Thursday, he left the union hall around 4 p.m. and, to calm his nerves, poured himself a cocktail: a Captain and Diet Coke.
He wasn’t supporting Biden or Trump at the moment, and he didn’t think either party was truly on autoworkers’ side.
“They’re all full of shit,” Butler said. “We haven’t had a president in there for years, with the exception of Trump, that was really for the people, all the way back to the Reagan days.”
“Historically, man, if you didn’t vote Democrat years ago, and you were in the union, sometimes you got your ass kicked,” he said. “Democrats were for the working people. That shit has changed. I’m telling you what, the Democratic Party was not what it was 20, 30 years ago.”
And there was Dave Johnson, a 64-year-old union committeeman. At 3 p.m, he had gone home to prepare for a strike. His wife was sick. He’d made her chicken noodle soup, and he ordered a pie from the local Pizza King — the one he brought to the union hall for others.
Johnson didn’t vote for Biden in 2020. And he won’t be voting for him next year.
“Terrible,” he said. “Can’t remember his own name. It needs to be someone else besides those two guys. I’d vote for Obama.”
Finally, at 9:53, p.m. seven minutes before his scheduled Facebook livestream, Fain’s decision came. A text flashed across Quirk’s screen from the UAW. It said that the first strikes would be at a GM plant in Wentzville, Mo., a Stellantis factory in Toledo, and Ford’s Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne.
“We didn’t get the first nod,” Quirk told the room, adding that he was surprised Fain’s Kokomo was spared — for now.
As 10 p.m. approached, the TV switched from CNN to Fain’s Facebook live feed. “We are using a new strategy,” Fain was saying. “We are calling on select locals to stand up and go out on strike.”
Still, the room knew the rolling strike could soon be here in Kokomo.
“Cut the checks,” a man in the back of the room yelled.
“Solidarity,” said another.
They spilled out into the parking lot beneath a milky black Indiana sky, and headed to meet with workers at the local’s four different plants to manage the fallout. There were tempers to tame, next steps to plan, and unnecessary porta-potties to manage.
“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be in this for a while,” Butler said.
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