Jamie L. LaReau
Detroit Free Press
Published 4:28 PM EDT Sep 23, 2019
DETROIT – General Motors and UAW negotiators continued bargaining Monday in the eighth day of the union’s strike, while at least one union hall started stocking its pantries.
The strike is the longest widespread work stoppage by the UAW since 1985. Negotiators have worked into the evening each day for the past week, including over the weekend.
Leaders at UAW Local 163, which represents GM Romulus Powertrain workers, are preparing for a long strike. They’ve gathered food, water, diapers and other goods to hand out to strikers who will be financially strapped after a full week without regular wages.
“We have over 500 people here with 2016 seniority and they’ll be in need,” said Joe Garrett, shop chairman of GM’s Romulus Powertrain Global Propulsion System.
Those workers are known as “in-progression.” They start at a lower hourly wage, usually $17 an hour, compared to a “legacy” or more senior worker who earns $28 to $33 an hour. After eight years, an in-progression worker can reach $28 per hour.
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Many of the newer hires at Romulus are also single mothers, said Garrett. Most were not able to work a lot of overtime to save up for a long strike like Garrett did. He said that for the past six months he worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week to save up for a possible strike.
Now he and other leaders at the local are working 20-hour days to help members during the strike.
“My main goal is to put everything in place where membership is taken care of and we’re set up for the long haul,” said Local 163 President Ralph Morris Jr. “But this has made our membership tighter than it’s ever been.”
At 12:01 a.m. Sept. 16, about 46,000 GM UAW workers at 55 GM sites in the United States went on strike after the UAW rejected an initial contract offer that GM made two hours before the contract expired at midnight Sept. 14.
Even if the UAW gets a tentative agreement with GM, the union is considering staying on strike until rank-and-file members approve that agreement, a process that could add more than a week to the length of the work stoppage, the Free Press has reported.
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Typically, strikers return to work and the ratification vote takes about two weeks. But union leaders say they expect to remain on strike until the entire membership votes and ratifies a contract.
With GM’s UAW-represented workers earning just $250 in strike pay each week and facing having some medical expenses reimbursed through COBRA, the strike is a hardship.
“I don’t make any money standing out here pretending this is fun,” said Darryl Stephens, UAW Local 163 joint training representative and kitchen captain for the strike. “Nobody wins in a strike. The company doesn’t win and workers don’t win. But this is serious business.”
Besides the GM workers, thousands of employees with suppliers are temporarily laid off because of the strike.
GM has idled some plants not represented by the UAW due to parts shortages. GM’s Oshawa, Ontario, plant has been idled, with some 4,000 workers temporarily laid off. That plant is scheduled to close at year’s end.
On Monday, GM idled parts of two of its engine plants: GM Canada’s St. Catharines Propulsion Plant and DMAX engine plant in Moraine, Ohio.
DMAX builds the 6.6-liter turbo diesel engine in GM’s heavy-duty pickups, a product of Flint Assembly Plant. About 550 workers at DMAX, which are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, will be temporarily laid off.
St. Catharines builds engines for GM’s pickups, full-sized SUVs and some cars including the Chevrolet Corvette. About a third of the plant is still running, because they produce transmissions for CAMI, which builds the Chevy Equinox SUVs. About 700 workers there have been temporarily laid off, a GM spokesman said.
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Just what they need
On the Monday morning after GM UAW workers went on strike, about 600 people joined the picket line in front of GM’s Romulus plant, said Garrett.
Only about 40% of the 600 picketers worked at the plant. The rest were UAW members from Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles standing in solidarity, he said.
“It was a pretty powerful movement,” said Garrett.
For example, every day union members from Local 600, which represents workers at Ford’s Rouge plant where the F-150 pickup is assembled, have walked the picket line at Romulus.
About half of the 1,200 UAW workers at Romulus engine plant have low seniority. Of the other half, Garrett said, “I’ve got seniority people living week to week, but it’s the young ones who scare me, with the little kids.”
The plant builds engines for many GM cars including the newly launched Chevrolet Blazer SUV. GM assembles the Blazer in its plant in Mexico, a sore spot for the union which had wanted the SUV to be built in the United States.
On Thursday, Gar and Morris will meet with United Way to see how it can help striking workers in need. In the meantime, here are some of the donations.
UAW Local 600 donated a “whole stack” of Meijer $25 gift cards for striking workers in need and 300 pounds of meat to feed the strikers.
IBEW Local 17 in Southfield donated beef, chicken, pork chops and slabs of ribs to feel the strikers.
The Sam Bernstein Law Firm donated 50 loaves of bread.
Local Shell gas station on Ecorse Road has delivered pizza, donuts, ice and lets the union hall use its dumpster.
“They’ve all been over the top,” said Garrett, overwhelmed by community generosity.
Even residents and GM retirees drive up to the picket line and ask what they can do to help, said Garrett.
Five long tables inside Local 163’s union hall are topped with boxes of cereal, canned food, paper products, diapers and at least 60 to 75 cases of water.
Union members in need came to the union hall to take items that will help them get by, said Garrett. Only a few have come so far, but Morris and Garrett say that will increase later this week once workers will have gone a full week without wages.
“It’s empowering to see,” said Garrett. “They’re not taking for themselves, just what they need.”
Feeding the forces
As kitchen captain for the strike, Stephens arrives daily at 5:30 a.m. He is preparing food to feed strikers until early evening. He directs about 15 other union members to help him in the kitchen, he said.
Big boxes of foam containers line the interior wall of the union hall just outside the kitchen. The containers were a gift from seven University of Michigan labor law students. They delivered them last week and then joined the picket line to show the union support. Those containers are critical to transporting the food from the hall’s kitchen to the front line to feed strikers.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s not the work I worry about,” said Stephens, who’s worked for GM for 36 years, 22 of those years at the Romulus facility. “This younger generation needs a roadway to full employment. The temporary workers are human beings too and they need job security.”
The issue of temporary workers has been a sticking point in negotiations. The union wants a pathway for those who have worked years in temporary jobs to become permanent workers. But GM is resisting.
Stephens said he is ready to wait it out. He’s endured two previous strikes: One in the mid-1980s and another in 2007, which lasted two days.
“This is the longest strike for me,” Stephens said. “I’m numb. I’m numb that we even had to get to this.”
Follow Jamie L. LaReau on Twitter @jlareauan