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From the ground at the historic UAW strike rally in Detroit

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The United Auto Workers are rallying in Detroit today to mark the start of historic and unusual strikes. The union is striking against all three major automakers - Ford, GM and Stellantis - but only at one plant per company. Right now thousands of workers are striking, which is less than 10% of all unionized workers at the Big Three. But that number could grow. NPR's Camila Domonoske joins us now from the rally site. Hey, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I know that you've been out on the picket lines today meeting with a lot of workers. What are you hearing from them?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, you know, a lot of people have talked about the sense that they are making history - right? - the first time the UAW has struck all three of these companies at the same time. That brings with it some excitement. But also, you know, it's a strike. There's fear. There are concerns about the economic toll it takes on a family to not have income for a while. And, you know, I should note - really broad consensus among workers out on the picket lines that the companies can afford to make better offers than they're making now. But, you know, one other thing that struck me when I was talking to people today is that while nationally I think there's been a lot of focus on the wage demands in these talks and things like cost of living, which are really important in these talks, to be clear, a lot of the workers who I spoke with who are striking themselves - they focused more on things that have not been so much in the national headlines.

CHANG: Oh, interesting - things like what?

DOMONOSKE: Things like how long it takes for a new worker to reach maximum pay levels and things like retirement health care benefits. I met one worker named Eric Mullins. Here's one thing that he said to me.

ERIC MULLINS: They need to give some guys like me health care after we retire. I'm third-generation. My grandfather started here, and I couldn't tell you when. My dad's been here since '95. So he's got almost 30 years in here. And his insurance is far greater than mine.

DOMONOSKE: And is he retired?

MULLINS: No, nope - still here.

DOMONOSKE: But when he retires, what's he going to get?

MULLINS: Oh, he'll still have insurance, absolutely. He'll still get everything. He'll get a pension, all his benefits. We get nothing. So that's the kind of stuff that's got to end.

CHANG: Wow. So that worker's looking back at what the union used to give to people like his dad, and that's what he wants for his generation, too. How realistic is that, Camila?

DOMONOSKE: Well, that question that you just asked is really at the heart of these strikes - right? - because the union is saying - under new leadership, Shawn Fain - he's saying, we can ask for more than we thought we could under previous leaders. They're trying to get back things that they gave up before, especially things that they gave up in 2007 and 2009 in order to help the automakers through what was really a financial crisis. And from the workers' perspective, they're saying, you know, it worked. You're doing great now. Your profits are huge - everybody mentioned the size of company profits to me. And now it's your turn to give that back to us - OK? - your side of the deal.

On the other side of the table, sources at automakers have told me that retirement health care - specifically, that benefit that Mullins was talking about - that that is a non-starter for them because of that same history. You know, they look back. They say that a big part of what pushed two of the Big Three into bankruptcy was their financial obligations to retirees, and they don't want to go back to that. So both sides are looking at this history, and it's taking them in completely opposite directions, which is why we now have this strike situation.

CHANG: So interesting. OK, well what's next after this rally?

DOMONOSKE: Hard act to follow. The crowd loved Bernie Sanders' speech. And we're right across the street from a black-tie event at the Detroit Auto Show. There's going to be a - negotiations are going to resume between the automakers and the union, and we'll see what happens.

CHANG: That is NPR's Camila Domonoske in Detroit. Thank you so much, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.