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Striking workers draw picket line as UAW, General Motors dig in

Posted at 4:57 PM, Sep 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-16 18:24:00-04

United Auto Workers members at General Motors plants in Parma, Toledo and across the country walked out at midnight Monday after the union failed to come to a tentative contract agreement with the Big Three automaker. Approximately 49,000 UAW-GM workers, including roughly 3,000 workers in Northern Ohio, have taken part in the strike as both the union and the automaker remain at an impasse over wages, benefits and profit sharing.

The strike has shuttered 31 GM factories at nearly two dozen other facilities in nine states.

At 11:59 p.m. on Sunday night, a steady convoy of workers streamed out of the Parma GM plant as fellow union members cheered and chanted. Small groups of workers paced the grounds of the two million square foot facility as the drivers in passing cars honked their horns to show support.

“We stood up for General Motors when they needed us most. Now we are standing together in unity and solidarity for our members, their families and the communities where we work and live,” said UAW Vice President Terry Dittes.

The union and GM have been negotiating a new contract for months, and on Sept. 3, the UAW selected GM as the strike target, meaning they would be the first of the Big Three auto giants to begin negotiating. The UAW will, in essence, use the GM negotiations as a litmus test for future collective bargaining with Ford and Fiat-Chrysler. Also, on Sept. 3, UAW members voted to authorize a strike amid the negotiations, with more than 96 percent of GM UAW workers approving a strike. It was also 96 percent for Fiat Chrysler and nearly 96 percent for Ford.

Dr. Juscelino Colares, the associate dean for global legal studies at Case Western Reserve University, said the UAW has a great deal of negotiating power because it has been more than decade since the last strike.

“[The UAW] has a big strike fund that they have accumulated because they haven’t had a strike in so long. They have a big strike fund so they have the economic [power] to do it,” Dr. Colares said. “GM is a healthy company, but GM faces competitors and so do workers. Workers have competitors in so-called non union states. Both sides have strong incentives to cooperate.”

According to GM, the automaker offered the UAW $7 billion in investments to GM production facilities and the addition of 5,400 new jobs. Additionally, GM has reportedly offered that the GM Lordstown plant would be retrofitted to begin the manufacturing of electrical vehicle batteries. In exchange for its concessions, General Motors wants the UAW to agree to higher health insurance costs and greater flexibility in terms of staffing. Currently, UAW-GM employees pay only four percent of their employer’s health insurance costs whereas employees of other companies typically cover 30 percent of their employer’s healthcare costs, Dr. Colares said.

“GM is concerned about what will happen in four years if we have a recession and [GM is] stuck with this contract that they can’t change,” Dr. Colares said. “There are issues with how flexible GM can be if the economy turns.”

National Bargaining Committee Chair Ted Krumm of UAW Local 652 added, "We have been clear at the table about what GM members have indicated we will accept. We are standing up for what is right. We as local unions will sacrifice to stand up for what we deserve."

In 2015, the union and automakers struck a last-minute deal for a new four-year contract, which did expire at 11:59 p.m. on Saturday. Last year, GM announced plans to close four plants in Ohio, Michigan and Maryland, which didn’t sit well with the union. Earlier this year, union leaders and the heads of the Big Three held ceremonial handshakes to mark the start of contract talks.

During the events surrounding those handshakes, union officials said they considered this their "make up year" where they would recoup some of what they agreed to give up as Chrysler and GM went through bankruptcy. They say the automakers need to share the wealth as they make big profits over the last few years. However, auto company executives say those profits are offset by expenses as they prep the next generation electric and self-driving cars.

As UAW-GM employees have forgone their normal wages in exchange for their $285 per week stipend while on strike, Dr. Colares said GM is losing more than $1 million per hour per factory. The longer the strike continues, the greater the pressure will be.

“This is already costing GM big time a lot of money. GM has an interest to negotiate,” Dr. Colares said. “They are a healthy company but no company can operate with a threat of a strike much less a strike for too long. Both parties do want a deal but at this time it’s political and it’s political in the sense that the leadership is under pressure.”

The strike comes amid an FBI, IRS and Department of Labor investigation into bribery allegations among UAW presidents across the country. Earlier this month, agents raided UAW President Gary Jones' home in Canton Township, Michigan, as part of the nationwide investigation. Then, last week, a regional director was charged with embezzling funds from the UAW for hundreds of thousands of dollars in golf equipment, cigars, villa rentals and more. Ten people have been charged as a result of the federal probes.

“What I see is a battle for relevance of the UAW,” Dr. Colares said. “They’re trying to show they’re relevant and that they are there for the rank and file.”

RELATED: GM workers in Parma join the thousands across the country in strike