As part of the UAW’s tentative agreement with Stellantis, an idled factory in Belvidere, Illinois will restart production.
Kim Larson, who works at the Belvidere Assembly Plant, pickets with other members of the United Auto Workers outside the Chrysler Parts Distribution plant on Sept. 22, 2023, in Naperville, Ill.
One of the more notable outcomes of the tentative contract agreement between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three automakers, which earned workers 25 percent wage increases over four years, is the fate of a 5 million square-foot Stellantis plant in Belvidere, Illinois.
As recently as 2019, the plant employed 5,464 workers on three shifts building the Jeep Cherokee. But the Belvidere plant has been idle since February, when Stellantis laid off nearly all of the remaining 1,200 workers at the plant.
As a result of negotiations, the Belvidere plant will be reopened and even expanded, with Stellantis agreeing to produce a mid-sized truck there, as well as add an electric battery assembly line. “We’re bringing back both combustion vehicle and battery jobs to Belvidere,” UAW president Shawn Fain said in a Facebook Live presentation.
Matt Frantzen, President of UAW Local 1268, which includes the Stellantis plant and several local suppliers, told the Prospect he hopes significantly more than 1,200 workers will
It is rare that a contract negotiation in any industrial manufacturing sector leads to the reopening of a shuttered plant. In addition, the UAW negotiated a clause that could stop such closures in the future, by giving the union the right to strike any of the Big Three companies across its facilities if a plant is closed.
Several longtime Belvidere workers, including Frantzen, attributed the reopening to the democratic leadership and tactics of the Unite All Workers for Democracy reform slate led by Fain, who has reshaped the union since assuming office in March.
Frantzen, who has worked at the plant since 1994, was elected in May to lead the local on a long-shot campaign pitch to reopen the idled plant. Shortly after assuming the office, he got a call from Fain’s office, which at first he thought was a joke.
UAW leadership invited Frantzen to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden on an upcoming visit, and detail Belvidere’s needs. The experience was surreal, Frantzen told the Prospect. As he spoke to the president about the membership of Local 1268, he said, Biden’s staff took notes.
The previous leadership of the UAW, he added, would never have considered allowing that meeting to occur.
“In the situation Belvidere was in, I would have been the last person that would have been asked to go do something like this. It really was a black eye to the UAW. How do you go out and organize facilities, when right under your own umbrella, you’re idling and closing plants?” Frantzen said. “That’s one thing that’s refreshing about this new leadership. They want the reactions, the emotion, from the membership. They don’t have a problem with the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
When her father learned that the plant would stay open, she said, he cried.
When Belvidere initially shuttered in February, production moved to Toluca, Mexico, one of 65 closures or plant spinoffs at the Big Three over the past 20 years. The UAW has arrested this slow grind of relocation—at least for now.
Tom Ashelford, a Rockford, Illinois native who was hired in 2009 as a temp worker at Belvidere, was one of many who made plans to leave the state during the pandemic, as work dried up. When the Belvidere plant lost a third shift, he said, he sold his home and downsized, preparing for a potential move to Toledo or Detroit.
But after the news of the plant’s idling in February, he stuck around in Belvidere, inspired by the new direction of the union.
“I rolled the dice. I had enough faith in the international leadership of the UAW, that they would come through for us,” Ashelford said. “A little faith in Fain.”
Dawn Simms, a third-generation autoworker who worked on the Belvidere assembly line on chassis, was relieved to hear the news. Her son just started his junior year in high school, and she has worried about needing to move, and forcing him to start over at a new school.
Simms’ grandfather started work at the plant in 1965, and her father started in ’70, she said. When her father learned that the plant would stay open, she said, he cried.
Sources have indicated that workers at the new battery plant slated for Belvidere will fall under the UAW master agreement, which has higher pay and benefits than other Big Three battery facilities.
Of course, for American battery workers to fall under the UAW’s newly won agreement with Stellantis, the Netherlands-based company will need to build those battery plants in the U.S. to begin with. One sign that may trouble U.S. autoworkers: Stellantis has just announced that it has acquired a 20 percent stake in Zhejiang Leapmotor Technology, an EV maker headquartered in Hangzhou, China.
Asked whether he is concerned about capital flight following this historic deal, Scott Houldieson, a worker at a Ford assembly plant in Chicago, pointed to the fact that the union secured the right to strike over plant closures.
“We’re good for the next 4.5 years,” Houldieson said. “But in the long term, we need to build the global working class. So we need to pay attention to what’s going on in Brazil, with GM workers on strike down there over indefinite layoffs, and the organizing that’s going on in Mexico.”