DETROIT—The General Motors employees who have been working a picket line instead of an assembly line the past month say they have a backup plan if they can’t secure what they feel is a perfect contract: rain jackets.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” a United Auto Workers striker who referred to himself only as “Keith” told me Wednesday at the entrance to General Motors Hamtramck Assembly. “We still feel good. We’re waiting to see not just the highlights, but the low lights of this contract as well. If it’s not to our liking? Hey, I got a rain jacket right here.”
A tentative agreement was reached between UAW negotiators and GM on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean the strike is over. Indeed, ratification could take weeks. But for the workers I spoke to, that doesn’t weaken their resolve to keep going—even as they continue the longest automotive industry strike since 1970 and live with a few hundred dollars a week in strike pay.
There are few specifics available about the agreement yet as the UAW wants to bring the contract to its members first. But strikers expect to walk the line at least another week as the agreement is first voted on by the UAW GM National Council, who will decide whether to recommend ratification of the contract to union members.
If they do, then all GM UAW members will vote on the contract as a whole. If they don’t, both sides will be back at the bargaining table.
“We’re willing to be out here a day longer than GM,” Striker Mike LeBlanc told me. “Whatever it takes. If it’s voted down, we’ll be out here. If it’s a good contract, we’re ready for it. We have faith in our UAW leaders. A day longer, a day stronger. We’re here to fight for the middle class.”
A recommendation by the National Council does not guarantee a thumbs-up vote by the UAW at large, though the UAW does have the option of sending strikers back to work before a vote if the Council approves it.
Even though workers have been on strike pay, which was recently raised from $250 per week to $275, for a few weeks now, many said they were not feeling any financial pressure and were willing to stay on the line, no matter what.
“We’re good. We prepared for it. You know, the union told us a long time to prepare for this,” Keith said.
But the ripple effects of this are felt everywhere. More than 50 GM plants in nine states have halted work, as have plants in Canada in Mexico; supplier companies are dealing with slowdowns or layoffs; dealers are finally starting to feel the pinch; the economy in Michigan alone is taking a huge hit. If nothing else, a strike can prove how global and all-encompassing the auto industry is.
For the workers, however, the strike is a literal fight for the future. They’re working to secure more U.S.-based auto plant jobs at a time when GM production is increasingly shipped to other countries even as the company is handsomely profitable. And they’re working to fix concessions they say they made before the Great Recession, contract provisions that have kept so-called temporary workers from paths to full employment and have kept new workers from the same wages as more senior ones.
But it’s those inequalities that keep the strikers on the line for now, they say.
“When they [strike pay checks] start to stack up, then maybe I’ll cash ’em,” one striker, who wished to remain anonymous, told me with a laugh.
A common theme among the strikers, especially the older folks walking the picket line, is that they are getting paid pretty well. Well enough, it seems, to cushion the blow of being out of work for a month with relative ease. Many told me they had been saving up in the event of a strike.
The purpose of the strike, to them, isn’t to raise their own pay—it’s to help the workers on the lower tier who receive half of what long-timers’ get.
Strikers at the Hamtramck plant feel responsible not only for their fellow workers but for the community at large. Hamtramck Assembly, along with five other plants, including the Lordstown plant in Ohio, is currently slated to be “unallocated.” This would mean basically shuttering the plant, leaving local restaurants and businesses in Detroit’s most densely populated neighborhood in a lurch.
With a potential agreement with GM on the horizon, strikers are hoping that other workers see their success and start demanding collective bargaining rights of their own.
UAW members seem very aware of the organization’s place in history and its role in the creation and stabilization of the middle class in the last century. They see union membership waning in America back to pre-20th-century levels as part of the reason for rising income inequality.
And the UAW itself needs a win. In recent years it’s become more known for its corruption scandals up top than how it’s actually represented its workers. This labor action has been the most significant one in the auto industry in half a century, and these workers say they have to make these demands now, when their companies are at last doing well, so they have a stake in what comes next.
“This is a historic strike,” Keith said. “Other companies and workers need to learn from this... we need unions.”