World

The Father Has Spent His Career at Ford. The Son Might Not.

On Friday morning just before 10, Steve Kellums, 54, and his son Keegan, 24, sat side by side in the older man’s living room in Westland, Mich., a short drive from the Ford Motor assembly plant where they both work. One week into the strike by 3,300 workers at the plant, they were anxiously awaiting an announcement from their union president on Facebook Live.

Bent over his cellphone, Keegan tried to tamp down sparks of optimism. He knew better than to imagine that the strike, at that point limited to his plant and two others in Missouri and Ohio, would end quickly, because the United Automobile Workers and Ford management were so far apart.

“I know it’s going to get more ugly before it gets better,” Keegan said, taking a swig from a bottle of Pepsi.

Steve turned toward him. “Or, let’s be positive,” he said, sounding decidedly dad-like. “There’s at least a chance they could have come to an agreement.”

Father and son have leaned on one another since Sept. 15, when the autoworkers’ union began its first simultaneous strike against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, Chrysler’s parent company. Both men were on strike for the first time in their lives, and have been talking one another through it day by day. They represent two ends of the spectrum among the workers, and two perspectives on the industry, a generational divergence that ripples through the broader work force.

Their views reflect larger changes in the way younger people see work, and think about obligation to employers, a shift that has fed recent growth in support for unions and union organizing efforts at more private companies.

U.A.W. members and supporters arrived to join strikers outside the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

With 28 years behind him at Michigan Assembly — an immense plant in Wayne, 30 miles west of Detroit, that ordinarily churns out some of Ford’s most popular SUVs and trucks at slightly faster than one vehicle a minute — Steve Kellums hopes to retire by the time he turns 60, and he dreams of buying a small farm in Tennessee. He was hired in 1994, before a downturn in the industry and a recession drove Ford into financial crisis, and forced the union to make once-unthinkable concessions, including accepting a two-tier wage system with lower pay for newer workers.

When Keegan Kellums started at Ford in 2020, his pay reflected those tumultuous changes. He said he left Amazon, where he was making nearly $18 an hour as a packager, to start at Ford at just $16 an hour.

His father said it pained him to see how much had changed since the days when a job at Ford Motor meant a comfortable middle-class life. He was making double his son’s wages when Keegan was hired.

“Twenty-five years later, they only offered him $3 more per hour than I got when I joined,” Steve said. “Is this the life I wanted for him? No.”

Now, the U.A.W. is trying to eliminate two-tier wages, add retiree benefits for younger workers, and raise pay by 40 percent over the next four years, to make up for the compensation lost to givebacks over time. Ford has said it cannot afford those proposals.

On the picket line last week outside the plant in Wayne, it was hard to find a union member who did not have two or three generations of relatives employed by the company. For much of its history, since it began offering factory workers $5 a day to build the Model T in 1914, Ford’s wages and benefits allowed blue-collar employees to join the middle class. Jobs with the automaker were sought after. Turnover was low.

Keegan Kellums, who moved out of his father’s house in Westland last November, said that if the strike is lengthy, he may move back to save money. Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Keegan has ties to Ford on both sides of his family. His maternal grandfather worked for 42 years at Michigan Assembly. His father’s great-grandfather worked at another Ford plant in Dearborn. Keegan’s first new car, in high school, was a silver Ford Fusion; to make his payments, he worked at the nearby Henry Ford museum.

As a boy, he imagined a future with Ford, but was taken aback when his father did not embrace his plan.

“My dad said, ‘No, be something bigger than that, go to college — I come home tired every day,’” the younger Mr. Kellums recalled another day last week, sitting in the local union hall near tables piled with food donated to striking workers.

When Keegan was nine or 10 and the country sank into recession, the union agreed to help keep Ford afloat through a bad time, but members now say Ford never restored their losses when profits surged again, leaving them disillusioned and less able to get by.

“I knew something was going on,” Keegan said of that time in his childhood. “The big birthday parties got smaller. We stopped going to Cedar Point, the amusement park, for vacation every summer.”

After high school, he worked as a cashier at Dollar Tree, making minimum wage and living at home, and then for Amazon, where he hoped to find more opportunity. But he found the workplace chaotic during the pandemic, with frequent changes in sick-time rules and people being fired with little warning.

When the job came up at Ford, he felt conflicted, but the prospect of joining a strong union made the difference.

“The union could protect me,” he said. “That was it, right there.”

Keegan and Steve Kellums waved at cars while on strike outside of the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

The new job was a grueling adjustment for him — physically demanding, hot and dirty. Lacking seniority, he worked from 6 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. and came home exhausted, his arms coated in black grime. Like his father, who works days, Keegan is a material handler, “feeding the line” by swiftly moving heavy rolling racks of auto parts from the warehouse to the fast-paced assembly floor.

“I’m a big boy,” he said, “and it takes all my weight to move them.”

As his endurance grew, so did his pay; earlier this month, his hourly wage rose to $24. He had saved enough by last November to move out of his father’s house and into an apartment with two roommates.

When the call came to strike, father and son both said they felt ready. Steve took the bigger financial hit, because all union members are getting the same strike pay from the union — $500 a week. But Keegan faces more uncertainty; he had planned to sign a lease on a new apartment this November, but now, with no idea how long the strike will last, he wonders if he should move back in with his dad.

If that is what it takes to win a better contract, so be it, he said, noting that for younger, lower-paid workers like him, the strike feels like less of a risk than it might for older workers.

“The difference with my generation is, we don’t have a lot to lose,” he said. “We don’t have a pension. We don’t have kids.”

Each generation says it is fighting for the other: Keegan wants to see his father’s losses restored, while Steve wants to know that his son will be able to make a decent living at Ford, as he himself once did, before cuts to his hours and overtime reduced his income. “I couldn’t tell you the last time I had 40 hours,” he said.

In his son’s view of the future, though, Ford is just one option. “If I could find a good job somewhere else, I would,” Keegan said, “but what else is there around here?”

The announcement the men were waiting for on Friday morning turned out not to be the strike’s end, but its expansion. Workers at 38 General Motors and Stellantis parts distribution centers in 20 states were called to walk out. Shawn Fain, the U.A.W. president, did not expand the strike to additional Ford employees, though, citing progress in bargaining on job security and wages.

Encouraged by that glimmer of hope, Keegan said the strategy seemed sound, and that he approves of the union’s aggressive approach. “The older generation, in general, has been more passive,” he said. “I think my generation pushed them to take the first step.”

Steve wonders how willing the younger workers will be to accept even reasonable compromises at the bargaining table.

To save money while the strike goes on, Keegan said he would continue to go “grocery shopping” in his father’s pantry and visit often for home-cooked meals. At the union hall on Thursday, Keegan’s girlfriend scooped up several donated tomatoes to give to his father, a skilled cook who can replicate their favorite Outback entree, Alice Springs Chicken.

After the announcement on Friday morning, it was time for Steve to head to the picket line, where he serves as a strike captain outside Gate 19 for six hours a week. Keegan tagged along, though his own assigned day to picket was not until Sunday. Keegan knew his dad would join the line again with him then.

Keegan’s girlfriend has picketed as well, between her shifts at Walmart, where pay and benefits are lacking, she said, and there is no union to push for better. While the strike has made her more aware of the potential drawbacks of a job at Ford, the 22-year-old said it still looked like a better option.

Given the chance to work at Ford, she said, she would jump at it.

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