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On GM's UAW Picket Line, No Backing Down As Workers Fight Back Against Income Inequality

Photo: Erin Marquis
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DETROIT—Hamtramck and Flint, Mich., are still very much company towns, to the point where you spend a lot of time just driving in large arching curves around the General Motors plants at the core of each of these communities. For over a week now, these places have been buzzing with apprehension. But on the picket line where United Auto Workers members have ceased working, there is both anger and a grim resolve to see this strike through.

Strikers work on four hour shifts and are posted outside of each of the three gates of GM’s Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly, known locally as the Poletown plant, starting at 4 a.m. and stretching long after working hours.

Normally when work is in session, the factory turns out Cadillac CT6 and Chevrolet Impala sedans. But work has been halted since last week as part of the ongoing United Auto Workers strike, and the plant itself is slated to close in 2020—a sticking point for those on the picket line and at the negotiating table.

When not walking the picket line, these workers are running around with various supplies or helping out at the union hall. Several were happy to talk with me about why they are walking the picket line and what they hope will come of the strike. Many were not comfortable using their full or real names out of privacy and employment concerns, but they were vocal about why they were there.

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“I feel we owe this back to the current workers,” one retired worker said. “Somebody did this for us. They walked for us. They laid the groundwork for us,”

While the UAW isn’t asking retirees to join the picket line, this retiree felt called to stand with current and future workers.

“I retired right here (at Hamtramck Assembly),” he said. “I had a good career and I’m still living well on my retirement benefits that someone fought for me for. So I come out and support these people to get them the same opportunity.”

“You’ve got the upper, middle and lower class,” he explained. “If you take the middle class out, there’s no step for the lower class to step up. And they’re not going to throw a rope down. So we have to fight for it.”

Current GM workers echoed many of his sentiments: the workers gave up too many protections and benefits to try and help save GM just before the Great Recession. In 2007, GM was already hurting. To help buoy the company, the UAW agreed to the deeply unpopular two-tier wage system, swapped pensions to 401 (k) plans for new workers, ended cost of living wage increases and froze wages for four years along with saddling workers with three percent of their health care costs.

All of their sacrifices, workers feel now, were for nothing. GM closed four plants and cut 10,000 jobs by June 2008, according to The New Republic. Six months later the company was looking for federal aid. GM only survived thanks to a $50 billion bailout from the American taxpayer.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was a UAW member well over a decade ago when I worked at WDET public radio, and like many in Michigan, I have family members who are current UAW members, just not with GM.)

Now that GM is once again handsomely profitable, to the tune of $2.4 billion this quarter alone, workers see this as high time to get some protections back.

Fall 2019 marked the beginning of the UAW’s new contract negotiations with the three American automakers. GM was first up with negotiations that quickly stalled. The UAW wanted concessions from GM on wages and job security as well as paths towards seniority for temporary workers. Additionally, GM wants workers to pick up even more of the $900 million a year healthcare bills. GM’s first offer was to bump up the employee contribution to healthcare from three percent to 15 percent, an offer it quickly walked back. But it was a pretty bold move from a company experiencing good financial times.

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“We don’t want to step back like we have the last two union contracts,” a line worker at Hamtramck told me. “We’re not going to take less than what we had before. I mean, it’s ridiculous to have people who are ‘temporary workers’ for 10 years or 12 years. You just can’t do that.”

By far the most unpopular concession from the 2007 contract among today’s strikers is the two-tier salary system. Those hired before 2007 and those after are treated considerably differently.

Anyone hired before that year is considered a tier-one employee. They make $28 an hour. Workers hired after 2007 are tier-two employees, and they make only $14-$16 an hour. The plan was this: once 20 percent of workers were hired in at tier-two status, the first tier-two employee would move up to tier-one salary and benefits, and so on such that tier-two workers could only ever make up 20 percent of the workforce.

The rise of the so-called “temporary workforce” has made its way into the auto industry. Through a system of temps, contract workers and a subsidiary called GM Subsystems, plants and offices are flooded with workers who have no bargaining or union rights at all. Temporary workers now make up seven percent of GM’s workforce. Strikers told me temporary employees work under what they consider outrageous conditions, such as seven-day work weeks and only three days off for an entire year. Any additional days off and they face automatic termination.

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“We had a temp in Flint who had to fight to get a day off to attend his son’s funeral because he was a temp and had no rights and no benefits. That’s not okay, and we don’t think it’s okay,” said one tier-one worker who said she was hired just before the last strike—an action that lasted just two days in 2007.

She says she feels the public doesn’t understand that they aren’t striking to raise already fair wages. It’s for the tier-two and temp workers, who they say deserve a step up.

“Everyone wants a secure future where they know they’ll have a job to go to,” she said. “That’s what we are really about. Everyone thinks we’re being greedy and selfish. This is about the ones who are coming after us. We want them to have a future.”

The future at Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly is anything but secure. Last year, GM announced that it would “unallocate” the plant, a fancy term that means no new production will be coming to the plant. It’s language that effectively closes the plant while avoiding breaking the old UAW contract which protects workers from plant closure.

Detroit/Hamtramck isn’t alone. Also unallocated was GM’s Lordstown plant in Ohio, which shut down as sales of its Chevrolet Cruze sedan plummeted with the explosive popularity of crossovers and SUVs. And while GM has introduced new crossovers and SUVs since then, they are made in places like Mexico, not Ohio.

That’s not to say GM isn’t investing stateside. The company announced in March that it would invest $300 million in a suburban Detroit plant to build an electric Chevrolet model, for instance. GM told Reuters that it was investing $1.8 billion in U.S. operations across six states this year.

Many on the picket line, however, believe GM is using this unallocation simply as a bargaining chip in negotiations and a way to goose GM’s stock price, though all negotiations are happening behind closed doors.

“We have full confidence in our union leadership to negotiate a fair and just contract,” said Carlton Byas, who works in health and safety at the Hamtramck plant. “But you better believe we’re in it for the long haul.”

“It’s just so darn despicable to have one guy on one side of the line making $16 an hour, and another guy on the other side of the line making $28,” said Ralph, who went only by his first name but is a veteran of over 30 years with GM and a third-generation auto worker. “I’m nearing retirement. I’m not worried about myself. But they’re like the new generation. I’m on my way out, so I’d like to see them rise up.”

Across the country, and very much unlike in 2007, it doesn’t feel like these workers are alone in their sentiments. Recent strikes by teachers in places like Los Angeles, Oklahoma and West Virginia have been called some of the most significant labor actions America has seen in generations, ones that successfully helped educators secure needed raises. The Association of Flight Attendants flexed hard during the government shutdown earlier this year.

And for auto workers, this strike against GM—now in its eighth day, the longest one since 1970—feels like the old UAW back in force again. The mood on the ground is that this feels less like an auto industry strike and more like a big-picture American labor action.

Call it a feeling that these kinds of jobs no longer feel like a path to a comfortable middle class life the way they used to, even as, in GM’s case, the company is raking in billions and its own CEO has a compensation package worth $22 million.

“[CEO] Mary Barra makes $11,000 an hour, and she’s not down on the line getting carpal tunnel,” Ralph told Jalopnik. “We have so many people with repetitive motion injuries, so for them to cut the health care, these guys need it. I’m just an electrician, but these guys and girls, they need their care.”

One woman told me she feels heat from people similarly miserable in their jobs but without the means to change it; that they should just accept things. But that mentality fits with the way things have gone in America for decades now.

A 45-year long decline in union membership can be also directly tied to rising income inequality and low wages, according to a new report from the Hamilton Project, which is part of the Brookings Institution think tank. Union membership has now reached pre-20th century levels, while corporations have never been more powerful. It’s not hard to draw comparisons between GM’s temp workers, with no path in sight to real employment, and the gig workers who underpin many of the tech startups.

GM itself has whittled down its number of unionized workers to 49,000, the lowest of the Big Three, according to Bloomberg. But right now, all 49,000 are still on strike, shuttering 55 production centers and costing GM some $100 million a day, and there currently seems to be no end in sight.

That doesn’t mean things are easy for these workers. Picketing employees are making just $250 a week in strike pay. And GM has struck back against them by cutting off their health care benefits, shifting costs to the UAW’s strike fund instead. Both sides are settling in for a long fight, albeit it’s a fight where workers will feel the sting before their huge, multinational corporation does.

Out at Hamtramck, it doesn’t feel like any of that matters. And it doesn’t feel like anyone on that line has any intention of backing down. Solidarity is the word on everyone’s lips.

“We’re looking for fairness,” Ralph said. “That’s all it boils down to. I hate to strike. It seems uncivilized. But GM has never let go of anything to anyone without a fight.”