Both a critique of union practices and an examination of life in a working-class Rust Belt enclave, the film concerns a trio of Detroit auto workers: Zeke Brown (Pryor), Jerry Bartowski (Keitel), and Smokey James (Kotto). Fed up with mistreatment at the hands of both management and union brass, and coupled with financial hardships on each man's end, the trio hatch a plan to rob a safe at union headquarters. They commit the caper, but find only a few scant bills in the union safe. More importantly, they also come away with a ledger, evidence of the union's illegal loan-lending operation and ties to organized crime syndicates. They attempt to blackmail the union with the information, but the union retaliates strongly and begins to turn the tables on the three friends. Meanwhile, a federal agent attempts to coerce Jerry into informing on the union's corruption which could make him enemies with his co-workers as well as the union bosses.