By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN – The United Auto Workers (UAW) represent about 46,000 GM workers at 55 facilities in the U.S. More than 90% of them voted to strike if the UAW couldn’t negotiate a better deal with GM by midnight Sunday September 15. They didn’t come to terms, so at the GM plant in Spring Hill 3,600 autoworkers struck in the wee hours of Monday morning.
According to the Detroit News, workers finished their shift at the GM assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, Sunday at midnight. They got into their cars and in single file left the plant and drove past UAW Local 598 headquarters sounding their horns. Hundreds of workers walked a picket line all night. Workers at some 30 GM plants went out at midnight.
It is the first national auto strike since 1982, and the first against GM since 2007. The UAW hopes a good deal with GM will translate into the same terms for contracts at the other two big car-makers, Chrysler Fiat and Ford. Walter Reuther first used this strategy, called pattern bargaining, in the 1930s. It leverages the labor force at one automaker to get better pay and benefits throughout the industry.
It is risky because it’s betting the future of tens of thousands of workers on a roll of the dice with one manufacturer. The company has made $46.5 billion in the last four years and autoworkers want a piece of that pie.
GM wants UAW workers to accept non-union wages like in Nissan plants in Smyrna and Dechard, Tennessee ($13/hr-$30/hr.), or at VW in Chattanooga ($16/hr. -$23.50/hr). Assemblers at the big three make about $30/hr. while Toyota pays $25/hr.
Comparing base wages is only half the story. Benefits like vacation and sick time, retirement and health care at the Big Three basically double the pay. Some analysts say the generous UAW benefit package is forcing the Big Three to sell their cars and trucks at higher prices than their foreign competitors.
But other auto industry watchers say GM created its own problems. It miscalculated the public’s demand for SUVs and pick-ups and built too many sedans like Malibu and Volt that aren’t selling well.
Working on an automobile assembly line is hard but it’s a good route into the middle class for thousands of autoworkers, many of them women and minorities. They are on strike to make sure they stay there.
“The workers are going to stay out until we get a good contract that has some job security provisions in it and that means bringing products back to this country,” said Mike Herron, Bargaining Chairman of UAW Local 1853 in Spring Hill.
GM was about to go under in 2008 when the U.S. Treasury Department invested $49.5 billion and later taxpayers lost about $11 billion when GM stock was sold. The company has since closed the sprawling Lordstown plant in Ohio, idled three others in the U.S. and built two new ones in Mexico.
You could blame the strike on greedy workers, corrupt UAW officials, or GM’s betrayal and failure to make what consumers want to buy. One UAW official told local union leaders last Sunday that GM had met just 2% of the union’s demands and that made a strike inevitable. When talks resumed Monday morning both sides seemed to be talking past each other.
For it’s part GM, has played its cards close to the chest and the UAW said GM negotiators waited until the last 2 hours of the old contract before showing their hand.
The deal GM outlined and released to the media addressed the UAW’s major concern for job security with good pay and better profit-sharing. GM proposed to make $7 billion in investments in eight facilities in four states and create 5,400 jobs. They offered unspecified “solutions” for idle plants in Ohio and Michigan.
GM wants to introduce an electric truck and proposes to build it in GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant. That will keep it from being idled and the battery factory will be located in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, close to GM’s Lordstown complex, which is being sold.
According to the Detroit Free Press, the offer includes $8,000 in lump sum or wage increases in all four years, a better profit sharing program, an $8,000 ratification bonus, and employee health care costs will stay at around 4%. The national average is 28% so UAW members will pay less for health care than most American workers.
Neema Hooks transferred to the Spring Hill plant last year from Lordstown when it closed. She works in the paint shop with about 15 others. Her family is back in Ohio. It’s an 8 ½ hour car ride and she’s visited them three times in the last year. “It’s rough. It’s rough,” she said.
“We just want to be treated fairly. We want benefits, profit sharing, fair wages, temps that convert over to permanent. Permanent temps is just ridiculous. I wasted about three years as a temp and I could have been hired a lot sooner. I know what it’s like,” Hooks said.
The temp issue is a stumbling point in negotiations. GM has not agreed to abandon its two-tiered pay scale or provide a shorter timetable for temps to become fulltime workers with all their benefits.
Meanwhile, a senior union official, Vance Pearson, was arrested last Thursday and charged with embezzling more than $1million from union members. UAW President Gary Jones is also facing charges. Pearson is UAW Region 5 director and he has been advising UAW negotiators in Detroit. Region 5 covers 17 states from Missouri to California.
Federal prosecutors say at least ten UAW officials went on golf junkets and spent lavishly on meals and cigars in Palm Springs and other resorts. The officials then later submitted phony expense forms claiming they were attending Region 5 training conferences. Last week the FBI raided the homes of current UAW President Gary Jones in Ohio and former UAW President Dennis Williams’ home in California.
A former UAW official Michael Grimes pled guilty to fraud and money laundering on September 4. He is the first union official found guilty in the FBI’s ongoing investigation of corruption inside the highest ranks of the UAW leadership. Grimes, assigned to the GM division, received $2 million in kickbacks from vendors providing clothing and other accessories for the UAW’s GM training center.
Auto industry experts say GM loses about $31 million per day or $1.3 million every hour that production is halted at one GM plant. Thirty are on strike. But GM won’t feel the pinch as soon autoworkers will. The UAW has a war chest of $721 million but will burn $11.5 million each week the strike continues. Members’ health benefits will cut deeply into the strike fund.
Worker’s strike pay is $250/wk, $1,000/wk less than they make working. Neither side will benefit from a long strike.
Additional reporting by Ian Thibodeau, Robert Snell, Kalea Hall, and Daniel Howes of The Detroit News.