MANSFIELD — In 1993, the year Paul Gato graduated from Mansfield High School, a job at the Chrysler parts distribution center was as good as a lottery ticket.
“You had to at least know a guy who knows a guy to get hired,” Gato said. But if you did, the bounty of the middle class unfolded: Money was good, and raises came frequently. Health insurance and a pension were a given. And the backing of a powerful union, the United Auto Workers, meant the job was reliable.
“Everyone knew this was a gold mine,” he said, gesturing this week to the boxy brown warehouse behind him.
But Gato only landed a job at the center five years ago, and he can scarcely believe the building — now operated by the European car company Stellantis — is the same place he once admired.
Because Gato was hired after the Great Recession, he is only eligible to earn up to $25 an hour sorting radiators and rotors for Chryslers and Fiats, while so-called “legacy workers” hired a decade before him can make up to $32.
The gap means Gato feels stretched thin by the price of housing and food, leaving little for luxuries, like a restaurant dinner or a vacation. He bought a home in Taunton in 2020, but could never have done so without his fiancee, who owns a nearby day care.
“The company takes as much away from us as they possibly can,” Gato said while walking UAW’s picket line outside Stellantis on Monday. “And they pit us against the other guys who make more money because they were hired before ‘07.”
That pay disparity is the root of the labor dispute that has pushed unionized workers at General Motors and Stellantis to strike across the country — including a few dozen at this parts warehouse off Route 495 in Mansfield. Employees there walked out Friday alongside 37 other facilities in 20 states to try and force a contract that abolishes the tiered compensation system and restores protections afforded before the recession, when automakers slashed benefits to stay afloat.
What employees are looking for now is an end to a system of haves and have-nots, said Mark Anderson, vice president of UAW Local 422. Previous union contracts divided about 40 Mansfield workers based on when they were hired. A senior few got higher pay and security, while employees who started at Stellantis after 2007 — more than two-thirds of the Mansfield workforce — “were dealt the short stick,” he said.
In addition to the lower wage cap, workers hired after 2015 do not receive a pension or health care after retirement. And the starting pay for temporary employees, who can transition to full-time staff after 90 days, is $15.77, just cents above the Massachusetts minimum wage and on par with hourly wages at many fast food restaurants.
Many employees on both pay scales have not seen a cost of living increase in years.
By contrast, they note, the Big Three automakers combined have earned $99 billion in net income over the last five years, according to data from S&P Capital IQ. Stellantis, the company behind Fiat and Chrysler, saw its revenues soar. Executive pay has climbed 40 percent in the past four years.
The UAW is demanding a comparable raise of 36 percent over four years.
In a statement on Monday, Stellantis said the union did not respond to an offer that would provide full-time hourly employees who earn between $80,000 and $96,000 annually a 21.4 percent pay increase by the end of the four-year contract. (Anderson added that many Mansfield employees earn below $80,000.)
“We question whether the union’s leadership has ever had an interest in reaching an agreement in a timely manner,” the company said. “They seem more concerned about pursuing their own political agendas than negotiating in the best interests of our employees and the sustainability of our US operations given the market’s fierce competition.”
Mansfield workers disagree. After the strike began Friday, dozens of employees and supporters spent the rainy weekend marching day and night with tattered umbrellas, sustaining themselves on Dunkin’ coffee and Cheez-Its sheltered underneath plastic tents. Their blue-and-white strike signs line the winding road, and when a delivery truck rumbles in every few hours, flanked by police officers, employees march in circles in its path until reluctantly clearing the way.
Once on Monday morning, employee Paul Macken slapped on a truck’s front door defiantly.
“I just want [the driver] to see us,” he said afterward. “To hear us.”
A 30-year Stellantis employee, Macken is in it for the younger folks. The job afforded him a home in Cumberland, R.I., and a comfortable pool of savings to raise his kids, now in their late teens. But over time, Macken watched the work become untenable: Stellantis shrank the number of employees, left the plant understaffed, and made six-day work weeks the norm, he said. Younger employees started earning less than their predecessors, falling from the middle class into the edge of poverty. Inflation made everything harder.
“A car loan today is as much as a mortgage loan 30 years ago,” Macken said. “This was an extremely great-paying job. And I’d like to get back to that.”
So would Lewis Fully, 38. The bread winner of his Pawtucket household, he strives to own a home and take his children to vacation in Europe. But what can he do with $19 an hour? To make ends meet, Fully recently took a second job at the CVS warehouse.
“I could work in California and make $25 flipping burgers,” he said. “This is supposed to be better work, union work. We just want our fair share.”
Adding to workers’ fears is the threat of the Mansfield Stellantis distribution center closing and merging with another location. Multiple employees said the company included Mansfield on a list of 18 outposts that could close soon, and the dealerships it services would be supplied instead by a plant in Fishkill, N.Y.
In a Sept. 16 statement, Stellantis said the contract proposal that mentions potential plant closures protects the company’s “rights to consolidate or sell other underused real estate and facilities” to lower its carbon footprint and operate efficiently. Any impacted jobs would be preserved, though workers note they wouldn’t necessarily stay in Massachusetts.
Should that merger happen, Frank Pace would take it as a final blow from an employer he believes has wronged him already. He moved to Massachusetts two years ago after Stellantis closed the plant he worked at in Illinois, right around when his wife fell ill with breast cancer. And because of the tiered payment system, Pace, 36, worked for Stellantis for 10 years before making as much money as his colleagues — an amount that still falls short, he said.
“What I know is that I can’t afford the cars that I help make,” he said.
On a usual workday, the Mansfield parking lot is evidence of that fact. Three decades ago, workers said, the employee spaces would be filled with sparkling Jeeps and Dodge Rams, a visual endorsement for the American-made car and the people who build them. Today, it is a field of used cars and low-priced imports.
Only one worker’s Jeep Cherokee stands strong — 12 years old and starting to age, its once-golden gleam fading away.