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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Biden and UAW chief celebrate rare rebirth of shuttered auto factory

By Jeanne Whalen Washington Post

President Biden and the head of the United Auto Workers on Thursday hailed the planned reopening of a shuttered auto factory in northern Illinois, saying the recent autoworkers’ strike had pushed Stellantis to reinvest in the site and promise thousands of new jobs.

The Jeep maker’s pledge to reopen the facility was one of the union’s bigger wins in the tentative contract agreement that it reached with the company late last month. It’s also a win for Biden, who threw his weight behind the autoworkers’ strike and personally lobbied Stellantis for the factory’s revival.

The tentative agreement, which still must be ratified by a majority of Stellantis’ UAW workers, calls for the company to invest roughly $5 billion in Belvidere, a small city 70 miles northwest of Chicago.

That will include producing a new midsize truck at the factory and building a new facility nearby to start manufacturing battery cells for electric vehicles, with a joint-venture partner. Stellantis will also establish an auto parts distribution facility in the city.

Those plans will give Belvidere a slice of the new electric vehicle economy only eight months after the town’s future looked grim following the closing of a factory that made gasoline-powered Jeeps.

“I strongly believe that when a company transitions to a new technology, they should retool, reboot and rehire in the same factories with the same workers in the same communities that existed there before,” Biden said in a speech to cheering autoworkers in the city. “That’s what you made happen here in Belvidere, and it should happen all across America.”

Stellantis said it has been in discussions for months with the union and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) about the new investments, which it said “will secure Stellantis’ future in Belvidere for years to come.”

The new jobs won’t appear immediately, as the production facilities will take time to overhaul and build. The truck production is scheduled to begin in 2027 and the battery manufacturing in 2028.

If the tentative contract agreement is ratified, workers who were laid off when the factory closed will be upgraded to “temporary layoff” status until the new jobs are ready to be filled, the union says. That status will restore their access to supplemental unemployment benefits and health-care coverage from Stellantis, the union says.

The union estimates that the new investments could “more than” restore the 1,200 lost jobs and add an additional 1,300 jobs at the battery factory.

Aaron Penrod, a laid-off Jeep worker in Belvidere, said workers are “psyched” about the news but still attempting to figure out how the transition will work.

The investment promises were part of the record contracts the union reached with Detroit’s Big Three automakers – Stellantis, General Motors and Ford. The tentative deals also include a 25 percent wage increase for UAW workers over 4½ years and other perks. The union won the agreements after a six-week strike that was its first simultaneous walkout at all three companies at the same time.

Speaking at the event, UAW President Shawn Fain thanked Biden for his help but reserved his biggest praise for the striking autoworkers. “We the workers have the power to shut this economy down if it doesn’t work for the working class,” Fain said.

Fain also repeated a vow to organize non-unionized auto factories beyond the Big Three – a goal Biden appeared to endorse by saying, “I want this type of contract for all autoworkers. And I have a feeling the UAW has a plan for that.”

Thursday’s visit caps a year of major union victories that have resulted in higher pay and better job security for thousands of autoworkers, truck drivers, health-care workers and Hollywood writers. Biden, who has called himself the “most pro-worker and pro-union” president, and his administration have played a role in encouraging both companies and workers’ unions to remain at the negotiating table.

“We are seeing historic gains for union members from industries as diverse as the West Coast ports to health-care workers, from UPS workers to autoworkers,” Julie Su, the Labor Department’s acting secretary, said in an interview. “And that’s not an accident,” she added, saying the administration’s policies have “helped strengthen worker power.”

Larry Cohen, a former trade union official and current member of the Democratic National Committee, called the revival of Belvidere among the most impressive gains the union made.

“It is a landmark outcome of the bargaining – more so in many ways than the 25 percent wage increase,” he said in an interview. “The fact that trucks will go there and not to Mexico,” he said, “is remarkable and critical.”