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GM Strikers Are Waging a Battle on Two Fronts

Almost 50,000 UAW workers are on strike against GM and a two-tier labor system that undermines worker solidarity. But members may need to wage a battle on two fronts — against the company, but also against their own union leadership.

Members of the UAW outside the General Motors Arlington Assembly Plant on September 16, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. Ron Jenkins / Getty

Forty-nine thousand auto workers are on strike at General Motors in the largest private sector strike since the last time union and company clashed, in 2007.

Production has stopped at fifty-five factories and parts centers. According to various analysts, the strike could cost GM $50 million to $100 million per day in profits. Before the strike, the company was expected to make $3.5 billion in this quarter alone.

Walking out was “scary and uplifting at the same time,” said Shawn Edwards, a worker at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant with three years’ seniority. “It’s scary because we have lives to maintain and we don’t know how long we’ll be out. We don’t want it to be too long but we do need to make a statement.

“It’s uplifting because we’re making a stand,” she said. “We’re not accepting concessions from a company posting billions of dollars of profit. And because we’re all together. There’s safety in numbers. We’re standing up for ourselves in solidarity.”

Strikers are hoping to make up ground lost since the United Auto Workers (UAW) agreed to two-tier wages in 2007, followed by the Great Recession and the auto bailout, when GM got $50 billion from the taxpayers and even more concessions.

The company has since rebounded, making $35 billion in profits over the past three years. GM paid no federal income taxes last year and gifted CEO Mary Barra $22 million.

Yet union workers, whose contracts were once the lodestar of the private sector, continue to fall behind as GM fills its factories with low-paid temps, contractors, and a subsidiary called GM Subsystems — all doing work once performed by regular GM employees. As one indication of the slippage in union numbers and power, when the UAW struck GM for two days in 2007, the workforce was half again as big, at 74,000, as it is today.

Not satisfied, GM is demanding more concessions from its overworked employees, a sign that the company sees the UAW as an easy foe, especially given the highly publicized corruption scandal that has rocked its top leadership.

It’s a testament to the rank and file that despite everything — not only the scandal but also the lack of any preparation through a contract campaign — they walked out as one. Even as their leaders kept mum about bargaining goals in the lead-up to the strike, auto workers decided what they were prepared to fight for.

Picketers on the line September 16 at GM’s Detroit assembly plant all said that equality for temps and second-tier workers was their priority.

Divide and Conquer

Today, contracted-out janitors in the plants make as little as $15 an hour, but in the past they would have been direct employees of GM and covered under the auto contract, which pays Tier One “legacy” workers about $31. Such jobs were often reserved for employees with high seniority whose bodies were worn ragged from years on the assembly line. Today most such jobs that GM considers ancillary, such as sequencing parts to feed the line, are done by contractors.

GM’s plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, for instance, is wall-to-wall UAW, with 5,200 employees. But only 3,600 are under the GM contract. The others are considered “supplier partners” and work for independent companies on site.

At the GM Tech Center where Jessie Kelly works, outside Detroit, she said there are 1,300 workers employed by GM and 550 employed by Aramark, doing both janitorial and skilled trades work.

Michael Mucci, a carpenter at Detroit-Hamtramck, said he has literally taken his father’s job — but his father’s employer was GM and his is Aramark. “I’ve got the same bosses he had,” Mucci said.

In another concession long sought by the auto companies, Aramark does not employ carpenters per se. All the traditional trades are dissolved into either “mechanical” or “electrical.”

Permatemps

GM weakens standards further by relying on so-called temporary workers, or “permatemps”: workers who perform the same jobs as regular workers, for far less pay — around $15 — and worse benefits.

“As a temp you have absolutely no rights,” Kelly said — she is a former temp — and they may remain temporary for years. Temps are allowed to miss only three days of work per year, unpaid, with advance approval, and can be forced to work seven-day weeks. Many stick it out for years, as Kelly did, in hopes of eventually being elevated to what GM calls “in progression” status (Tier Two).

“The last week of February when the profit-sharing checks come, we have two workers standing side by side that have done the same job all year long and one gets $11,000 and the other gets nothing,” said Michael Herron, UAW Local 1853 chairman at Spring Hill.

When temps were first allowed years ago, the Big Three automakers (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) said they would fill in for absentees. But now GM says 7 percent of its blue-collar workforce is permatemps. According to Herron, there are over 200 at Spring Hill.

“These aren’t workers just filling a ninety-day hole so that another worker can go on vacation,” he said. “They have worked every week for three years nonstop. So they deserve to be compensated just like anyone else.”

The Hole They Are in

Striking auto workers are trying to climb out of the hole they are in, but leaders have done little to offer a ladder. International leaders organized no contract campaign to energize members and pressure management before the strike and did not publicize their demands. Picket signs say simply “UAW on Strike.” At the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly line, a supporter was told not to carry his handmade “Solidarity” sign; only the official signs were welcome.

Not a button was distributed in the plants. There was no survey of the membership, no rank-and-file contract action teams, no bargaining bulletins to keep members in the loop. No “practice picketing,” no turn-down of overtime, no outreach to the public, no open bargaining — none of the tactics that have become common in many unions.

As they have for decades, UAW officials played their cards close to the vest, with only management allowed a peek. Members knew what they read in the media, explained materials handler Sean Crawford at Flint Assembly.

And the strike got off to a bad start when union leaders directed GM workers to cross their fellow union members’ picket lines.

About 850 Aramark janitors represented by the UAW at five GM plants in Michigan and Ohio had been working without a contract for over a year. They struck at 11:59 PM September 14 — the same time the big UAW contract expired. But GM employees were told to report to work without a contract, despite the pickets. After one more day of production for GM, their strike began twenty-four hours later.

“I can’t imagine a worse way to start a strike,” said Crawford, who took a personal day to keep from crossing the line. “The sit-downers would be rolling in their graves.”

Given GM’s massive profits, the UAW was well positioned to turn this strike into a national referendum on corporate greed and get the public behind workers’ demands, much as the Teamsters did during the 1997 strike at UPS that proclaimed, “Part-Time America Won’t Work.” More recently, teachers have demanded “the schools students deserve.” Sadly, until the strike began the UAW made no attempt to connect auto workers’ issues to something the public could get behind.

Concessions Demanded

GM wants members to pay more for health insurance and is offering a less-than-inflation raise: 2 percent in the first and third years and 2 percent lump sums the second and fourth years. Worse, it offers no movement on the odious tiered system.

A sign of the company’s hardball stance was that it stopped paying for strikers’ health insurance; the union will pick up the tab for partial coverage. In earlier decades, the auto companies continued to pay for insurance right through strikes.

Complicating the strike is the corruption scandal that has now reached the union’s top levels. The houses of President Gary Jones and former-president Dennis Williams were searched by the FBI on August 28.

Jones’s top lieutenant before he became president, Vance Pearson, was charged with using union funds for personal luxuries, and it’s widely believed that Jones and Williams will be next; they are cited as “UAW Official A” and “UAW Official B” in court documents.

Pearson, who remains on the UAW executive board and reportedly attended bargaining after the contract expired, was the sixth UAW official to be recently charged with or convicted of graft; another was a vice president and a third the top aide in the union’s General Motors Department.

Crawford said as the strike kicked off, “Yes, the UAW is corrupt. It’s disgusting beyond belief. But this is not about them. It’s about us. We can and will clean house. But we have a more immediate fight on our hands right now.”

Kelly too wanted to rally the troops against GM: “If somebody in the union abused their power, their future is already set out for them. Ours is not, ours is up in the air. All we can do is be there for each other because if we lose sight … GM will win because we were focusing on the wrong fight right now.”

Mitch Fox, now at Romulus Engine near Detroit, his third GM plant after numerous shutdowns and layoffs, thinks his officers’ disrepute could even be a motive for the strike: “With everything that’s going on, maybe they’ll try harder to gain our respect back; hopefully that’s the plan.”

They Can Vote No

But if past contracts are an indication, the pact Jones negotiates is likely to be weak. If the strike is meant to wear down members rather than GM, leaders may accept a deal with a big signing bonus and plenty of tiers.

In that case, GM strikers will have just one tool to use between their rock and their hard place: their right to vote no. They can do what Chrysler workers did in 2015: they organized to turn down a contract that enshrined the two-tier system.

Rank-and-file Chrysler workers, with no union support, made leaflets and T-shirts, created Facebook groups to share their tactics, and rallied outside informational meetings.

They did what no one thought possible in the UAW and voted Williams’s offer down 2–1, overcoming his defiant declaration that “ending two-tier is bullshit!” and winning a partial victory. The offer was improved, establishing an eight-year grow-in to full pay for second-tier workers, in a four-year contract (though still without pensions or an equal health care plan).

Soon after the Chrysler vote, perhaps emboldened by the “no” vote there, GM skilled trades workers rejected their pact as well, by almost 60 percent, winning some improvements. (Production workers voted yes by 58 percent.)

In 2015 what the automakers gave with one hand they took away with another, though — a less-noticed provision also increased the use of temps.

“I’m voting no on any contract proposal that doesn’t give a pathway to equality for every GM/UAW member,” said Crawford. “This is a sacred principle. It is the very meaning of the word union. This opportunity might not come again.”