GM-UAW’s ten­ta­tive deal doesn’t ease fears

Houston Chronicle - - BUSINESS | CLASSIFIED­S - By Eli Rosen­berg

FLINT, Mich. — The picket lines are still there. The trash can fires are still burn­ing to keep work­ers warm.

But for the first time in weeks there is an end in sight for the 46,000 United Auto Work­ers mem­bers whose nearly five-week strike at Gen­eral Mo­tors brought the com­pany to a halt and helped start a dis­cus­sion about pay equity at blue-col­lar work­places across the coun­try.

The news that the union’s ne­go­tia­tors had struck a ten­ta­tive deal with GM af­ter more than a month of meet­ings in Detroit was greeted with a sense of cau­tious op­ti­mism here by work­ers, who have en­dured many chal­lenges as the fight dragged on. They missed pay­checks and en­dured in­creas­ingly cold tem­per­a­tures wait­ing for any sign of con­ces­sions.

The deal is not yet fi­nal, and its de­tails are scant. Work­ers will get to vote on it, but not un­til the 175 or so union lead­ers from GM fa­cil­i­ties around the coun­try meet Thurs­day in Detroit to ap­prove it first.

So, at least un­til then, the strike goes on.

With more than 1 mil­lion days of work lost, the strike is one of the largest in the past 25 years, part of a surge of ac­tiv­ity that has en­er­gized unions and other worker groups, from fast-food to tech com­pa­nies. A fa­vor­able deal for work­ers could help in­spire more.

“We’ve al­most for­got­ten what a strike is in this coun­try,” Har­ley Shaiken, a la­bor ex­pert at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, said. “And yet in the last sev­eral years we’ve we’ve seen an up­surge of strikes and la­bor ac­tions — in ef­fect a re­ac­tion about the un­cer­tainty and vul­ner­a­bil­ity that so many work­ers feel. I think this strike of the UAW and GM re­ally builds on that.”

The strike has cap­ti­vated the world of pol­i­tics, with picket lines serv­ing as a stage — and debate prompt — for the 2020 Demo­cratic race’s lead­ing can­di­dates.

But the strike’s eco­nomic toll has been ris­ing in re­cent weeks. Lay­offs in auto man­u­fac­tur­ing zones have spanned from the Mid­west to Canada and Mex­ico, rais­ing fears that the strike could tip vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas into lo­cal­ized re­ces­sions.

Those con­cerns have been pro­nounced in Michi­gan, home to about 20,000 strik­ing GM work­ers, and hard­scrab­ble cities like Flint where nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies and fam­i­lies rely on auto man­u­fac­tur­ing.

The An­der­son Eco­nomic Group, a Lansing-based con­sul­tancy, es­ti­mates that 75,000 work­ers have been laid off or had their hours re­duced be­cause of the strike, about half of those in Michi­gan. The group’s an­a­lysts es­ti­mate that losses have piled up for GM work­ers, who have lost $835 mil­lion in wages, and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which has lost $313 mil­lion in in­come and pay­roll taxes.

Michi­gan lost $18.5 mil­lion in tax rev­enue, they es­ti­mate. The State’s De­part­ment of La­bor says it pro­cessed 7,000 un­em­ploy­ment claims for auto in­dus­try work­ers be­tween Sept. 15 and Oct. 5 — a large in­crease over the 400 it pro­cessed in the same time pe­riod in 2018.

At union halls in Flint, work­ers, who have been get­ting by on $250 pay­checks from the UAW in lieu of their pay­checks, stopped by to pick up food boxes do­nated by the United Way on Wed­nes­day.

“I ain’t been spend­ing no money. Just hang­ing out. Just stay­ing around the house,” John Brooks, 67, a GM worker of 51 years, said out­side the UAW lo­cal 659 build­ing. “You know it’s hard, man. The house note, the car note, kids in school. I have a lit­tle nest egg, that’s what I’ve been dip­ping in to.”

The United Way of Ge­ne­see County has been fill­ing up 800 boxes with non­per­ish­able foods like pasta and peanut but­ter each week since the strike be­gan. It also op­er­ates a hot­line to help work­ers with deal­ing with other fi­nan­cial hur­dles, like late mort­gage, car or util­ity pay­ments, which has been flooded with calls of late, CEO Jamie Gaskin said.

Work­ers staffing picket lines across the coun­try have said those hard­ships are a small price to pay for a fairer con­tract with GM, which has had $35 bil­lion in prof­its the past three years. But as of Wed­nes­day it was dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine how many of the UAW de­mands were met, or whether both sides were sim­ply look­ing for a way to re­solve the im­passe.

Many of the pick­et­ing work­ers said they wanted to change the tiered wage sys­tem that GM has strength­ened in re­cent years. It now takes work­ers about eight years to scale up from $17 an hour to full pay, which is roughly $28 an hour. And the com­pany’s grow­ing use of tem­po­rary work­ers is an­other point of con­tention. Those work­ers make up about 7 per­cent of the com­pany’s work­force and of­ten do the same work for re­duced pay, fewer ben­e­fits and less job security.

GM has said it can­not af­ford to take on higher la­bor costs, not­ing that the amount of money it spends per worker is al­ready higher than for­eign au­tomak­ers, whose United States fac­to­ries are not union­ized. It also has pointed to the health care ben­e­fits it gives work­ers — em­ploy­ees cur­rently pay about 3 to 4 per­cent of their health care plans, well be­low the na­tional av­er­age.

Erin Kirk­land / New York Times

John Jack­son III, left, vice pres­i­dent of UAW Lo­cal 598, and Cad Fab­bro, se­cond from left, UAW Lo­cal 598's fi­nan­cial sec­re­tary, sup­port a picket line out­side a GM as­sem­bly plant in Flint, Mich.

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