The GM strike continues

“Despite news of an impending deal, the 50,000-strong GM strike, now over ten days old, may continue for a while. Although a hardship, this may be good news for the workers,” writes Eric Fred

Latest negotiations

A letter from UAW Vice President Terry Dittes to members on Wednesday stated “all unsettled proposals are now at the Main Table and have been presented to General Motors,” which indicated subcommittee work was concluded and talks had entered final phase. But no details on these ‘proposals’ were given. Then late on Thursday UAW spokesperson Brian Rothenberg told the press “on the major issues, we still have work to do.” Unfortunately, so far workers have had to rely on press reports, as both GM and the union are keeping a lid on negotiations.

But on Thursday two people familiar with the talks anonymously told the Detroit Free Press that the UAW and GM are far apart on several key issues, and it could be a week or more before a tentative agreement is reached to submit to the membership. UAW leadership has instructed regional directors to meet with the leaders of union locals over the next few days to finally brief them on the talks.

The strikers, out since Monday September 16, have closed 55 GM sites around the country and the strike is costing the company an estimated $100 million a day.

The strikers’ demands include pay, health care, and job security. But the biggest sticking points seem to be issues around the hated two-tier wage and benefit system, and demands for ‘a defined path to permanent seniority’ for temporary workers. The status of temporary workers was the top request among union members when surveyed by leadership last year.

Fighting to reverse givebacks

In 2007, with GM pleading hardship, auto workers were made to accept a whole series of givebacks, from a 4-year wage freeze to the ending of cost of living wage increases. Their pensions were turned into 401k, thereby relying on the volatility of the stock market. Most damaging was the introduction of a two-tier system and the use of temporary workers to fill in for absences, instead of the old practice of having permanent full time union members on call.

This meant that temps, though themselves union members, and often working side by side with permanent workers, were now receiving half the pay and far fewer benefits. A full 7-10% of the GM workforce in any given year were employed as temps — about 4,100 workers in 2018 alone. Ford and  Fiat/Chrysler also show similar numbers.

Even the permanent workforce was divided into two-tiers. After 2007 a newly hired worker, called ‘in progression,’ made about $17 an hour, with the possibility of going up to $28 an hour after eight years. On the other hand, a ‘legacy worker’ hired before that could earn between $28 and $33 an hour.

These conditions were made even worse by the practice of ‘whipsawing.’ Auto plants, with the cooperation of their union locals, were forced to bid to become the site of new production — in effect, pitting one plant against the other in a race to the bottom. For instance, Orion Assembly in Michigan (which produces the electric Chevy Bolt and other new vehicles) operates under a ‘Competitive Operating Agreement’ that allows a 60-40 split, 60% traditional workers making about $30 an hour and 40% workers making about half that.

It is no wonder then that GM has seen record profits since 2015, including $10.8 billion in 2018 and $11.9 billion in 2017. In 2017, GM’s CEO was handsomely rewarded with close to $22 million in compensation. Yet the sacrifices GM workers made over a decade ago have not been reversed, and new hired and temp workers are still making significantly less than colleagues doing the same job.

It is therefore a tribute to the solidarity of the GM workers to see how united they have stood so far, in spite of the way management tried to sow divisions among them. The consequences of the 2007 concessions are now obvious to everyone, and the solid strike is particularly fueled by the desire of workers’ in all the different grades to do away with the separate tiers.

GM losing $100 million a day

GM, with Wall Street analysts looking over their shoulder, is hell bent to maintain this exploitation and profit margin, and is even looking to increase the percentage of lower paid temps. But they are being dragged to the negotiating table by this solid strike costing the company an estimated $100 million worth of  lost production a day, or $25 million a day in profits

Despite the backlog of inventory at dealerships GM built up before the strike, some of the popular models are running low. Auto analyst Joe Langley estimated the corporation could lose about 70,000 vehicles in a two-week strike. Overall, union workers have shut down 33 manufacturing plants in nine states and 22 parts distribution warehouses.

‘Just in time’ delivery, a style of small-batch manufacturing developed by Toyota in the 1970s, creates another weak link in service departments and repair shops. With the closure of GM parts distribution warehouses, car owners needing collision and recall repairs may find the needed parts are not available. One analysis of search data also found consumer interest in GM has cooled since news of the strike.

Strikers must be ready to vote no

These pressures are forcing GM to the table, and the strike is holding solid despite the union entering into the strike without an adequate pre-strike contract campaign or communication of demands.

If a deal is reached, the union will take the agreement to the GM-UAW council, which includes local union officials, and then bring it to members for a vote. This sometimes takes up to two weeks. But UAW sources have indicated that they may keep strikers out until the deal is either ratified or rejected, in which case the process would be expedited.

Many workers on the picket lines have been vocal in wanting all workers on the same job to be on the same pay scale. Marvin at the GM parts distribution center in Rancho Cucamonga, California told Marx21 “everybody should be paid the same; we all do the same work, no reason for newer workers to be treated unequally. We want job security.” 

A new contract should bring part-time and full-time temps, and workers in subsystems and contracted out services done in GM plants, into full status. A deal that grants a raise and retained health benefits, but leaves sections of the workforce out to dry should be turned down by the members — no matter how the union leadership tried to spin it. Four years ago Fiat/Chrysler workers sent negotiators back to the table and won improvements in this issue after rejecting the initial deal, setting a precedent that rank and file auto workers don’t need to accept bad deals and can demand their representatives go back to the table for more concessions from the bosses.

Paradoxically, the fact that some in the union leadership had recently been indicted on corruption charges, and prosecutors have openly alleged that a convicted ex-Fiat Chrysler vice president was bribing UAW leaders in order to influence the bargaining process, might strengthen the union’s negotiating stance now.

As Sean Crawford, auto worker at GM’s Flint assembly plant told Labor Notes before the strike began, “I think we can win something… the UAW could be looking to get back concessions to show they’re not as corrupt as the membership currently suspects.” As Marick Masters, director of labor at Wayne State University, told the Detroit Free Press, now any “tentative agreement they negotiate will have to be good enough to sell itself… The (UAW) leadership will not be able to sell an agreement that the membership will ratify, because they will not have confidence in the leaders.” 

In fact, workers can never assume that deals offered from secret negotiations were the best that could have been reached. Not all union leaders are corrupt, but all live in a strata removed from the workers, get accustomed to negotiating with bosses, and are not subject to the conditions of the shop floor. Their interests are not the same as the workers or the bosses, which means they can be pushed either way, within limits. “The workers are going to stick up for each other and will stick up for the autoworkers as a union,” added Masters, “They’re smart enough to separate the current leaders from the union and its role in helping them.”

Solidarity on the picket and beyond

Picket lines have been determined, with striking workers on a roster joined by others showing support. Marvin reported “we’ve been getting a lot of solidarity,” citing National Nurses United and UAW locals at Ford and Chrysler on picket lines and Teamsters stopping deliveries. There are many stories around the country like that of the free pizza delivered to the picket line by Marco’s Pizzeria in Wentzville, Missouri. They are now ordering extra dough to do so again, should the strike continue. One of the owners comes from a family of union printers, and a young worker there is the son of a striking GM worker. In Flint, Michigan a barber is offering weekly free haircuts on the picket lines for as long as the strike goes on.

UAW Local 163’s union hall, half an hour from downtown Detroit, is filled with food and products donated by the community for strikers feeling the pinch. The local Shell gas station has delivered pizza, doughnuts, and ice. IBEW Local 17 in Southfield donated slabs of ribs and other meats to feed the strikers. UAW members working for non-GM firms (like Local 600 of Ford’s Rouge plant) have been walking the picket lines every day. There, and at sites across the country, retired workers are showing up to walk the picket lines. Significantly too, the Teamsters union has pledged to honor picket lines, and is not delivering new vehicles to showrooms.

Unfortunately, at GM’s request, a court in Tennessee has granted a temporary restraining order to prevent UAW members picketing outside its Spring Hill Assembly plant from blocking the entrance, among other alleged ‘unlawful conduct.’ 11 strikers were arrested last week.

In Silao, Mexico, five GM workers were fired for refusing to work overtime — in support of the US strikers. Silao auto-worker Carlos Marquez told his US counterparts, “We are organizing to collaborate for the success of your efforts by not permitting overtime work at General Motors Mexico — because this hurts your movement and benefits your bosses who are the same as ours. Your struggle and problems are those of every GM worker in every part of the world.” Some of the fired workers are demanding their jobs back — a demand the UAW should take up.

Along with the workers in Silao, others at plants in Brazil, Canada, and South Korea have sent messages of solidarity to striking GM workers here. In South Korea, in the first full strike against GM since they acquired Daewoo Motors in 2002, a series of 6 hour walk outs is continuing. Wages, job security, and the treatment of “precarious” [temp] workers are issues there as well.

No GM plants have been run by scabs during either strike.

A victory for GM workers is a victory for all

If you are in a union, take a regular collection among your workmates, propose that the union make a donation from its own budget, see if your union can pass a resolution or share a statement supporting the GM workers or take a solidarity photo to send them, and try to organize a contingent to visit to a local picket line together with union members from your workplace. Labor Notes has posted a list of GM picket lines by state here.

Even if you don’t have much union experience or aren’t a union member, the UAW has called for a ‘Solidarity Sunday’ each week, where many supporters from the public join the picket lines. Show support by bringing snacks, find out if there are specific things you can do to support your local picket, ask what their demands are, discuss how they are building the strike, and share lessons from previous strikes. Such visits can help build confidence, solidify ideas and strategy, and encourage self-organization at the rank and file level.

The UAW will use the final contract agreed at GM as a template for talks with the other two US car makers, meaning that this fight impacts auto workers everywhere. Raising the conditions of the part time workers at GM will be an inspiration to low-paid part time workers throughout the country, including the so-called ‘gig economy.’ And the example of solidarity will be a victory for us all.

Eric Fred