GM intransigence forces 49,000 UAW members to strike

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

General Motors intransigence on reversing financial hits workers took during and after 2008 Great Recession forced 49,200 Auto Workers toiling for the largest Detroit-based car company to strike at midnight Sept. 15. The firm retaliated by yanking their health insurance, dumping the cost on UAW.

The old pacts between the Detroit 3 – GM, Ford and FiatChrysler – expired the day before, but the union kept talking, and workers kept toiling, at the other two car companies.

At GM plants nationwide, they walked off at the end of the four-to-midnight shift. GM “refuses to give even an inch” in last-minute weekend bargaining, union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.

GM disputed that, saying it offered raises, a signing bonus and proposed to reopen – at some unspecified future time – two of the six U.S. auto plants it closed this year, one in Detroit and a partial reopening of another in Lordstown, Ohio. GM shifted their machines and jobs to Mexico.

It also announced on Sept. 17 that it would not pay health insurance any more for the workers. UAW stepped in and said it would, using its strike fund.

“Taking our health care is sickening,” the union said in introducing a video about Laura Prater, a hospitalized GM worker in Springhill, Tenn., who woke up the morning of Sept. 17 worrying about how she would pay the bill, rather than how she would get well after surgery.

“The company’s decision was made without any warning to the UAW, leaving more than 48,000 members and their families at risk of being suddenly uninsured,” the union said.

Prater’s Local 2164 union president, Jack Bowers, called GM’s decision pretty bad.  I mean, traditionally, they’ve not done that (paid the insurance costs),” Bowers told WKU, a public radio station. “We’ve got people out there that need insulin. That’s a lot of money for anybody. I think it’s kind of wrong. That’s the nicest word I can think of right now.”

“GM’s failed attempt to hurt our members and force us into a bad agreement was cold, heartless, and immoral. One minute they say they care about their workers and next GM is cutting off people’s lifeline.  We will not allow our members and their families to experience the added burden of worrying about their health coverage while on strike,” said UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg.

“We are united. We’re organized. And we are in solidarity as we fight for a strong deal that provides middle-class wages, affordable health care, job security, a fair share of GM’s record profits and a better deal for temporary workers,” he added.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and other backers of single-payer government-run national health insurance, also known as Medicare For All, pointed out that if such a system were in place, the workers wouldn’t have to worry, and GM wouldn’t have to shoulder the cost.

The forced strike at GM is the largest private-sector strike in the United States in at least a year. Almost simultaneously, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions plans to lead more than 80,000 workers out in a week-long strike against the hospital chain.

The GM strike comes after near-record profits for the automaker of almost $12 billion last year and triple that over the last three years. Those profits are part of the problem in bargaining a new four-year contract to cover workers at 31 GM car and truck plants and 22 parts plants and warehouses.

Huge hunks of GM profits have gone into the pockets of GM execs, notably CEO Mary Parra, She walked off with $21.87 million in pay, stock options and bonuses last year – 281 times an average GM worker’s pay. The workers, saying they, not honchos, sacrificed, want more to go to them.

As a condition of federal loans and guarantees to keep GM going after it declared bankruptcy due to the financier-caused crash, UAW members at all the car companies suffered deep wage cuts, plus a two-tier wage system and other givebacks. Now UAW wants to recoup those losses for its members.

“While we are fighting for better wages, affordable quality health care, and job security, GM refuses to put hard-working Americans ahead of their record profits of $35 billion in North America over the last three years. We are united in our efforts to get an agreement our members and their families deserve,” said Terry Dittes, UAW’s vice president for GM.

“GM refuses to give even an inch to help hard-working middle-class families,” UAW said. “Among GM failures, affordable healthcare for thousands remains unsettled for no good reason.”

“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,” Dittes added,

The union prepared for the potential strike long before its executive board and local union leaders called the strike on the weekend of Sept. 15-16. At their meeting in Detroit Sunday, the local union leaders voted for the strike 175-0.

And at last year’s convention in Detroit, the UAW raised its strike pay to workers by $75 – 37.5% -- per week. Then-new UAW President Gary Jones openly warned Auto Worker members to start socking money away.

In addition to fair wages, especially an end to the two-tier system, the unionists are being forced to strike for “affordable health care, our share of (GM) profits, job security.” That is a veiled reference to Parra’s plans to close production at six plants and move the jobs to Mexico. They also want “a defined path to permanent seniority for temps,” who now suffer that second, lower-wage tier.

UAW’s lead GM bargainer, Ted Krumm of Local 652, said the union’s GM team clearly told Parra and her honchos what the workers want, and warned them that “we as local unions will sacrifice to stand up for what we deserve.”

“Our members have spoken. We have taken action, and this is a decision we did not make lightly. We are committed to a strong contract at GM that recognizes our UAW members, who make some of the greatest products in the world and make GM so profitable.”

“Today I represent tens of thousands of UAW members who are sacrificing their comfort and future to stand up and do what’s right,” Krumm added.

"I want to be clear about something. This strike is about us, about standing up for fair wages, for affordable quality health care and for job security. We’re standing up for our temporary employee brothers and sisters who do the same work but for less pay. These are profitable times, we worked hard to make this company profitable and we deserve a fair contract because we helped make this company what it is.”

There are actually two UAW strikes at GM. One started at midnight on September 14. The 850 UAW-represented janitors at eight of its Michigan and Ohio car plants, who toil for a subcontractor, Aramark – the firm that runs concessions at many major league baseball parks – had to walk out. Their contract expired in 2018.

Fair wages, caps on health care benefit payouts, vacation time and pensions were the key issues.  “We have UAW members who work long, hard hours and are still on public assistance,” Gerald Kariem, director of UAW Region 1D, told Associated Press. “It’s shameful. Region 1 Director Frank Stuglin added, “Every day, UAW members go to work and keep these plants profitable. It’s astounding that Aramark has not agreed to bargain in good faith over their contributions” to the company.