, , , ,

Milwaukee UAW members won big raises, but may lose their plant

Stellantis workers would have to relocate to Belvidere, other states

Signs attached to a pole saying "UAW on strike"
UAW workers were on strike for six weeks at the Milwaukee parts distribution center. Margaret Faust/WPR

While the United Auto Workers strike ended with major concessions from the country’s largest automakers, the deal will likely not save a century-old Milwaukee parts facility that employs about a hundred UAW members.

Workers at the Stellantis parts distribution center will be offered to transfer to another state, local union leaders said.

The union is currently voting on whether to ratify a proposed contract that includes 25 percent pay raises, but would close the Milwaukee facility, which has been in operation since 1921. Stellantis locals need to conclude voting within a week.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Milwaukee workers joined the strike in its second week as part of an escalating work stoppage across all three companies. They remained on strike for 39 days.

When contract negotiations began, the Milwaukee facility was already slated to close. At the time, union representatives said they wanted to win back a right to strike over a work site closure.

Stellantis, parent company of Chrysler, proposed closing regional parts distribution centers in favor of larger “Amazon-like” mega hubs. Along with closing the Milwaukee site, Stellanis plans to shutter similar facilities in Atlanta, Boston, Orlando, and Naperville, Illinois.

In the UAW’s tentative deal with Stellantis, the company agreed to reopen a manufacturing plant in Belvidere, Illinois, that would also house a large parts distribution hub, along with a battery plant for electric vehicles.

“It’s really a record contract for the UAW,” said former UAW Local 75 President John Drew. “But unfortunately, for workers at the Milwaukee Stellantis facility, it does include the closing of that facility with the work being transferred to a larger, newly created parts distribution center in Belvidere.”

A document attached to a fence with
UAW workers were on strike for six weeks at the Milwaukee parts distribution center. Margaret Faust/WPR

Milwaukee workers will have the option to transfer to another state

It may take up to two years to ramp up production at Belvidere plant, which is located about 95 miles away from the Milwaukee parts site, according to union leaders. They believe the Milwaukee site may remain open until the Illinois facility is fully operational.

Drew said the workers “will be faced with difficult choices” when it comes to long commutes or potentially relocating.

However, he said it is notable that Stellantis workers will have options.

“There is a place for people to go and they do have transfer rights, and they will retain their seniority and benefits,” Drew said.

He contrasted the UAW workers position with those at Milwaukee’s Master Lock plant, which is scheduled to close next year. At Master Lock, about 330 workers will lose their jobs between November and the end of March.

But Drew said the Stellantis workers in Milwaukee are still in a difficult situation. Some of them already transferred to Milwaukee from other closed plants, including Janesville and Belvidere, he said.

Steve Frisque, president of UAW Local 722, represents General Motors workers in Hudson, who were also on strike for six weeks. He said he is not certain all the Stellantis workers in Milwaukee will find spots in Belvidere.

“They might have to go further away,” Frisque said, given that so many other distribution centers are closing and jobs will be filled based on seniority.

“There’s gonna be a lot of people, and there’s probably more people than there are positions in Belvidere. So somebody’s gonna have to go somewhere else. We’ll have to see how that plays out,” he said.

Frisque said workers close to retirement age or with 30 years of service, or a combination of both, will be eligible to retire with a $50,000 severance. It is possible the severance could be higher if the union negotiates a closed plant status with Stellantis, he said.

Frisque said he empathizes with families who will face long commutes or have to relocate. He left the now-shuttered GM plant in Janesville when he knew it was going to close, and took a job nearly five hours away in Hudson.

He and another worker rented an apartment there and commuted home on weekends for more than six years, Frisque said.

“A lot of families were destroyed and torn apart,” he said. A commute to Belvidere from either Milwaukee or Naperville would add three hours to a workday, which is time away from loved ones.

Andrew Stark, the UAW representative for the region covering Wisconsin and Illinois, said he did not want to give his opinion of the proposed agreement between the union and Stellantis before the members finished voting.

“Membership will ultimately decide if they feel the agreement is a strong one or not,” Stark said. “Membership was very willing to go on strike and fight for what they believe they deserve. It’s up to them now to determine if they’ve reached that objective.”

Milwaukee’s last automotive plant

The Milwaukee site has been in operation since 1921. It was originally a factory for Lafayette Motors. That company was later consolidated into Nash Motors.

“And then in 1937, they stopped building automobiles there, and it became strictly a parts distribution center,” Drew said.

Nash motors merged with other manufacturers, eventually forming the American Motors Corporation in 1954. Chrysler acquired American Motors in 1987. At its peak, Drew said, the industry employed 24,000 people at plants in Kenosha and Milwaukee.

“I think that it is significant that it is sort of the last vestige of the presence of American Motors in southeast Wisconsin,” Drew said.