By MYA SHONE
Sept. 25 — “GM (General Motors) strikes have often been signal events in American history,” noted Steven Greenhouse, the former labor reporter for the New York Times, on Sept. 19, the third day that 48,000 auto workers represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) stopped work at 55 plants and parts depots in 19 states across the United States.
- “The 1936-37 sitdown strike by 2,000 workers in Flint, Michigan, led to the unionization of General Motors, then the world’s largest automaker, and in turn spurred a wave of unionization across the country.
- “The 113-day strike by 175,000 GM workers in 1945-46 helped lead to an agreement in 1950, known as the Treaty of Detroit, that provided breakthroughs on wages, health coverage and pensions, and became a model for other unions and corporations.
- “In 1970, when the UAW was near its peak membership [1.5 million], 400,000 of its members went on strike for two months against GM. … The union won a significant pay increase.”
This time, too, the autoworkers are determined that the contract negotiated with GM will be a turning point, one that will reset terms for workers throughout the U.S. “A good deal for us will help everyone,” remarked D’Andre Jackson who has worked at GM for 26 years. “We are fighting not just for us, but for our kids, our kids’ futures.” The autoworkers have told the union that its bargaining team must beat back prior concessions of two-tier pay scales and temporary workers and return to the union’s commitment to equal pay for equal work.
New hires comprise about 35% of the GM workforce today and earn only half the pay of longer-tenured workers. An “in progression” change in the contract four years ago provided for an eight-year “grow-in period” to reach the top wage tier ($29/hr) but that wage still is two dollars below that earned by workers who started at GM prior to 2007.
Temporary workers – about seven percent of the GM workforce – earn only $15.78/hour while performing the same tasks as permanent workers toiling beside them on the assembly line. They are subject to mandatory overtime and receive a maximum of three unpaid vacation days per year but only if approved by their supervisors. Their healthcare benefits are cancelled each time they are laid off even if the layoff is only for a week. In fact, most are permatemps. Domanique Henry has worked on the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly line for four years. Her bottom line: “We want to be equal. We do the same jobs and don’t get the same pay and rights.” Permanent workers share her sentiments.
Seventy-four years ago, UAW members struggled to make healthcare benefits a given for themselves and their families. Today they contribute three percent even while the average contribution for workers in other manufacturing industries is 30 percent.
They won that battle and refuse to retreat despite GM’s push to cut into their wages and have workers contribute 15 percent. GM cannot threaten bankruptcy now as it had in 2007 when the UAW offered concessions to maintain jobs. Profits in North America alone over the past three years have been $35 billion. Meanwhile, real wages have plummeted and the autoworkers received only two hourly wage increases in the last decade. That, too, has to change. Walking the picket line in Kansas City, Kansas, longtime UAW member Herb Taylor expressed the solidarity and determination among autoworkers today: “We’re not going anywhere until we have a solution that satisfies everyone.”
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Report from a UAW Picket Line in Langhorne, Penn.
By Gabe Chang (for The Organizer)
Forty-eight thousand UAW members at General Motors have been on strike since September 15 in one of the most important labor battles in years.
After General Motors (GM) threatened to go bankrupt in 2008, the UAW union leadership, under pressure from the Obama administration, agreed to even greater workplace concessions than in the past. Workers hired before 2008 earned $30 an hour and benefited from good-quality pensions and health insurance, but in 2008, UAW leaders agreed that all new hires would work for $15 an hour, with no pension entitlement, while temporary workers would not even receive health insurance.
The agreement accepted in 2008 by the UAW officialdom therefore created a two-tier system: a worker could earn half as much as his or her neighbor on the assembly line while they were doing the same work. A worker hired before 2008 told me: “New hires and temporary workers have been screwed!”
What is historic about this strike is that all UAW workers are on strike around the same demand: Wages and benefits for all post-2008 hires, permanent or temporary, must be increased!
On the picket line
I joined the picket line at the GM Distribution Center in Langhorne, Penn., where 80 UAW members work, all members of Local 2177. Langhorne is 30 minutes outside Philadelphia. All week, Make the Road (an immigrant rights organization), AFT, CWA, DSA and LILAC, among others, arranged rides to and from the train stations. I brought four workers from outside Camden to the train. A group of workers from Walmart were there. Though they make less than the UAW temps ($11 an hour), they contributed to the strike fund and food drive.
It was an incredible and heart-warming experience, with a lot of discussion. The strikers were touched that Walmart workers and undocumented workers were supporting them. They were almost choked up. They’d all worked minimum wage and lower-wage jobs before GM. They said that $15 seemed like a miracle at first. But then, you get married, have a kid, or a parent gets sick. …
Talking to three generations of UAW members was a highlight. A little prodding got the retirees and old-timers to talk about Walter Reuther, and it was clear they wished for leaders like him. One man talked about his father’s years in the UAW during the early 30’s, at the time of the Battle of the Overpass.
A couple of GM retirees told me about the historic 1972 strike at Lordstown, Ohio, and how desperate they were for help. They remembered the labor and community activists who brought them groceries and helped to pay their bills.
We didn’t talk too much about electoral politics. I gathered that most of them are fairly apolitical. There was some talk of Sanders. Biden was respected, but unpopular. Some of the younger workers previously had been Trump supporters — and they got a little ribbing for this from their co-workers. “I didn’t quite understand that he [Trump] was a racist, I was new to the union at the time,” explains one of the young workers, a former Trump supporter.
Many cars honked and waved. Every passing truck honked, many shouted support.
While I was there, three different cars stopped, and the drivers rolled down the window to talk and offer support and snacks. One of them, a teacher, said that all the teachers support the strikers, and they would all be there for the weekend rally. She asked if the strikers needed flashlights or blankets for the night shifts.
I distributed about 50 copies of Mya Shone’s article on the UAW strike [see posting above]. I also distributed the latest issue of The Organizer newspaper, and showed the strikers the messages of support sent by the young people who participated in the International Meeting of Young Revolutionaries (Paris, August 2019). When I showed the message of support from Azania/South Africa and the photos from the mass protest marches of millions of people in the streets of Algeria, the strikers said, “This is exactly what we need here!”