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