Michigan and the Auto Industry Share a Past. What About the Future?

Michigan’s economy and identity have been intertwined with auto manufacturing since Henry Ford perfected the moving assembly line and made Detroit a magnet for blue-collar workers seeking a middle-class foothold.

But the symbiosis between the state and its signature industry has been repeatedly challenged in recent decades by competition from abroad, factory closures and balance sheets so bad they required federal bailouts.

In some ways, that makes the current uncertainty in the state feel familiar. Members of the United Automobile Workers are back on the picket lines. Upstart carmakers outside Michigan are growing in market share. And as electric vehicles gain popularity, urgent questions abound about the auto industry’s future and Michigan’s place in it.

“We cannot let other countries or other states beat us in this competition,” said State Senator Darrin Camilleri, a Democrat whose district is home to several car manufacturing facilities, including a Ford plant where workers are striking. “It’s not only about ensuring that these jobs are well paid,” he added, “but making sure that more of those jobs are still right here.”

Three things are true about the auto industry in Michigan: It is far smaller than it once was. It remains vital to the local and national economies. And its ethos — the idea that you can work hard, make something worthwhile and get a fair wage for doing it — is ingrained deeply in the state’s sense of itself.

Tasha Johnson, center, led a chant at a U.A.W. rally in downtown Detroit.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

John P. Rhaesa, the mayor of Wayne, Mich., a Detroit suburb where striking workers have lined the main drag. Credit…Nick Hagen for The New York Times

“The Motor City, I think that says it all — people just identify cars and Detroit, and being the leader in that,” said John P. Rhaesa, the mayor of Wayne, Mich., a working-class Detroit suburb where striking Ford employees have lined the main drag this week, perking up each time a passing semi-truck blares a supportive honk.

The Big Three — Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — have an estimated 66,000 U.A.W. employees in Michigan, according to one recent study — more than four times as many as any other state. The figure does not include thousands of workers who staff the automakers’ corporate offices or the employees of auto parts suppliers whose factories dot Southeast Michigan’s industrial corridors.

U.A.W. workers began a targeted strike last week against all three companies, beginning with single plants in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. The union is seeking significant pay raises, shorter workweeks and job security as the industry moves toward electrification. If deals are not reached by Friday, union officials have warned, the strike could expand to more plants.

Officials in Michigan have tried in recent years to lock in their state’s place in the shifting automotive economy, seeking facilities to build not only electric cars, but also parts that would go inside them. A General Motors factory on the edge of Detroit that was once slated to end production was instead retooled as that company’s first plant entirely for electric vehicles. And as Big Three automakers expand their plug-in offerings and compete with electric-focused companies like Tesla, Michigan has aggressively courted new electric battery factories.

“We’re still the cornerstone of the automotive industry,” said Kenyetta Hairston-Bridges, the chief operating officer and an executive vice president at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. “Just like that ingenuity and that innovation that happened decades and decades ago, that is still taking place right now.”

A mural, including scenes from the auto industry, on the side of a movie theater in Wayne, Mich.Credit…Nick Hagen for The New York Times
U.A.W. members striking outside a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Mich.Credit…Nick Hagen for The New York Times

But the industry no longer plays an all-consuming role in the state, and its future is in flux. Adding to the uncertainty: Electric cars have fewer parts, and can be made with fewer workers than vehicles with internal combustion engines can.

In Detroit, G.M.’s headquarters still punctuates the skyline, but downtown has flourished in recent years largely because of investments by companies like Rocket Mortgage and Ally Financial. Other sectors, like health care and education, also power the state’s economy, though they lack the cultural resonance of carmaking.

Though large numbers of Michigan residents continue to work in auto manufacturing and parts manufacturing, federal data shows that those numbers have declined sharply — by some measures, around 50 percent — since 2000.

“I still think of the auto industry as kind of the most important industry in Michigan,” said Gabriel Ehrlich, an economic forecaster at the University of Michigan. “But it just doesn’t dominate the state economy the way it did 20 or 30 years ago.”

Before the strike started, Dr. Ehrlich co-wrote a paper outlining the potential fallout if workers left their posts. A protracted full strike at any of the three companies would lead to tens of thousands of lost jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic impact, the study found. An eight-week full strike at all three companies could lead to 300,000 lost jobs in Michigan, the authors said, with the damage extending past the assembly plants and into parts suppliers and other industries.

Matt Wegener, a Ford employee for 28 years who was picketing outside the Wayne plant this week, said he was already paring back his spending because of the strike. Though his factory is so far the only one in Michigan where workers have struck so far, the effects of individual cutbacks would multiply if the union calls more workers to the picket lines.

“Before the strike even started, I told myself I’m going to start limiting my budget, because I had a feeling that was coming,” Mr. Wegener, 48, said as he held up a red “U.A.W. on strike” sign in front of a gate leading to a deserted parking lot. “Just little things that you don’t necessarily need at the grocery store. You don’t need to get ice cream.”

The main entrance to a factory complex belonging to Stellantis, the parent of Chrysler and Jeep. An expansion of the plant was completed in 2021.Credit…Nick Hagen for The New York Times
Terrence Moore, left, and Ryan Lipke are among the striking workers.Credit…Nick Hagen for The New York Times

Union workers and their supporters said the short-term pain of a strike could lead to sustained economic benefits if employees receive big raises in a new contract and are able to spend more. But if auto companies agree to deals that they cannot afford, analysts said, that could ultimately hurt workers and the state.

“I do really worry about these new contract negotiations, if they are not sustainable for the many aspects of the economy that they affect,” said Tyler Theile, chief operating officer of Anderson Economic Group, a Michigan-based research and consulting firm whose past clients have included the auto companies. “We don’t want to go back to the jobs banks and bankruptcy. Public opinion isn’t going to digest another bailout.”

Over generations, the auto industry has become part of Michigan’s culture, forging not only the stories of industrial cities like Detroit and Flint and Lansing, but also of families whose grandparents moved to the state to find steady union jobs that paid enough to raise children and buy a house.

Detroit’s N.B.A. team, the Pistons, is named after an engine component. On the state’s highways, Chryslers and Chevys and Fords are notably prevalent, with foreign brands more sparse. And young Michigan residents, though in smaller numbers than before, continue to follow relatives into jobs at the auto plants.

Heaven Brown, 22, said she joined family members at the Wayne factory about three years ago. Her overnight shift helping to build Ford Broncos is physically demanding, she said, and it pays just enough to cover her bills. From her place on the picket line this week, she said she hoped the work stoppage would lead to improvements.

“I think everything is going to work, we’re going to get what we deserve,” Ms. Brown said. Still, she said, “I wonder how long this strike is going to be, how long they’re going to wait.”

The auto industry and its labor movement are deeply fused into Michigan’s politics. About 14 percent of Michigan workers were members of a union in 2022, down from 17 percent of workers in 2012 but still above the national average.

This year, Democrats took full control of state government for the first time since the 1980s. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders swiftly announced that repealing a so-called right-to-work law and restoring the prevailing wage would be among their first priorities. Both steps reversed Republican policies from the prior decade that unions loathed.

Still, with the state closely divided on partisan lines, Republicans and Democrats have competed fiercely in recent elections for union voters, traditionally a left-leaning constituency.

Donald J. Trump, who made inroads with blue-collar workers during his presidential campaigns, and who has criticized the national move toward electric cars, plans to speak to union members in Detroit next week rather than take part in a Republican debate. Facing skepticism from some people in the union, President Biden has voiced support for the striking workers.

New cars sit on the site of what used to be a Lansing, Mich., car assembly plant. The factory closed in 2005.Credit…Nick Hagen for The New York Times
Brenda Carter, a state representative and former autoworker.Credit…Nick Hagen for The New York Times

The potential stakes in the standoff — the difference between a thriving auto industry and a struggling one — can be seen across Michigan’s industrial landscape.

For hope, look to the crumbling train station in Detroit that Ford brought back to life, or the Stellantis factory that reopened, or the electric vehicle supplier that is building on the site of an abandoned Cadillac plant.

But there are risks of being so tied to one industry. Detroit and Flint were 20th-century boom towns that grew alongside their car factories and became havens for the middle class. Both saw their fortunes reverse when factories closed: residents fled, property values collapsed, crime rates soared.

Brenda Carter, a Democratic state representative from Pontiac, another factory town that fell on hard times, said she had witnessed many of the same highs and lows in her city.

Ms. Carter spent more than 30 years in the U.A.W., working in machine repair for G.M.

It was a job she took pride in. It was also a job she walked away from before she planned to, accepting an early retirement package in the depths of the Great Recession.

Still, she said, the auto industry was one worth investing in, worth hitching Michigan’s future to, worth doubling down on, even as it shifts from combustion to electric power.

“We are the manufacturing capital of the world,” Ms. Carter said. “That is who we are.”

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