Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press
Published 2:17 PM EDT Sep 21, 2019
FLINT, Mich. — Erik Bond is making more bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches in his kitchen at home in Grand Blanc, Michigan, these days because, well, he just doesn’t know what’s going to happen and every single dollar matters.
“We don’t ever eat fancy,” he said. “But we need to make things simpler. Our stress level has gone up. We’re tossing and turning at night, not knowing what’s going to happen. We’re saving money for electricity, mortgage and car payments. We’re praying to God — for strength.”
At 41, Bond has worked for GM for 22 years. He’s a materials handler who drives a fork truck in a plant that builds the popular Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra. His wife, Melanie, works on the assembly line. His father retired from GM, having worked in powertrain.
It seems so long ago, when the UAW went on strike at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 15, workers say. And now the clock ticks as an estimated 46,000 hourly employees watch and wait while GM and union officials negotiate a new four-year contract at the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit.
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“I love GM,” Bond said as he picketed outside the Flint Assembly Plant truck entrance off Bristol Road and I-75. “We put our heart and souls into the work. We really put our bodies to the test. And we want GM to make it so we can have a comfortable life, so we can send our kids to college, live in a decent house and buy a dependable vehicle. I mean, we buy GM products.”
Melanie Bond looked down at their 10-year-old son Maximus quietly holding a sign as he watched trucks pass by honking their horns and said, “We’re holding onto our faith. It’s all we can do now.”
Melanie Bond said the family will do what it takes to survive on $250 a week strike pay as long as necessary. “God is watching over us.”
But, really, this strike didn’t start a week ago.
For many UAW members, it started a decade ago — when the union made significant concessions during the economic downturn to help GM recover from bankruptcy. And, now, with billions in profits and tens of millions in executive pay, workers say it’s their turn to feel some extra love. They believe they deserve higher wages and to keep their comprehensive health care paid almost entirely by the company.
While loyalty to GM runs deep, loyalty to one of the most powerful labor unions in America runs deeper. It is part of the fabric of Flint, Michigan.
This city 68 miles north of Detroit is a place where kids used to graduate high school and go straight to the plant to sign up for a job. Everyone in the family worked there. And it was an honor. Stories span generations. And they’re told with pride.
“My grandfather came here from Mississippi to work on the line for Buick,” said Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. “My grandmother was pregnant with my mother when they came here. These were good-paying jobs that provided an opportunity for families. And they impacted our whole community.”
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This, she explained, is why people take umbrellas to workers picketing in the rain. Why teachers and nurses and business owners have delivered thousands of sandwiches. And coffee. And doughnuts. And water.
Flint was the birthplace of GM and has a city park with sculptures honoring a 44-day sit-down strike in 1936-37 that led the company to recognize the UAW’s bargaining authority. This town, once a model of manufacturing excellence, devolved into an industrial Midwest tragedy.
It is the hometown of Michael Moore, whose 1989 documentary film “Roger & Me” demanded answers from GM CEO Roger Smith about how the company could shutter its plants, leaving tens of thousands of people unemployed amid rising desperation.
When Flint switched from Detroit water to cheaper Flint water with high levels of chloride in 2014, it caused pipes to corrode. GM reported immediate issues with rusting engine blocks, and water servicing GM was switched immediately so products weren’t ruined. It was the people, not the company, who would suffer.
“This is a company town,” Mayor Weaver said. “There are a lot of mixed emotions now. People don’t know when they’re going back to work.”
Ready for ‘a good fight’
Kevin Trevorrow, 45, of Davison has been with GM 22 years and now walks the picket line. “They pay my bills. We love the company. It supports our way of life.”
This strike isn’t about anger, it’s about fairness and justice and the need for generous health care coverage in an industrial workplace, workers say. During interviews, they describe in detail shoulder, hip, leg and back injuries, some wearing braces.
“Our bodies are broke,” said Amy Gardner, 47, of Grand Blanc. After 24 years with GM, she works on the assembly line checking that the radio, rear lights, windows and seat belts work properly.
Matt June, 41, of Flint doesn’t understand the anger toward unions and members’ desire for a good life. After 16 years with GM — he is an assembler who secures the passenger seat in the trucks — he emphasized that union jobs made America great.
“I’ve prepared for this strike,” he said. “The union told us to be prepared. This is going to be a good fight. We’re fighting for, honestly, a thing of the past, where health care is provided by the employer. We want to keep it that way. When I was growing up, no one thought of paying.”
More importantly, he said, “At any moment, if needed, we are already trained and could take care of a war effort if we ever needed to again, God forbid. We built tanks. That’s part of our history.”
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At age 49, Tonjalett Triplett of Grand Blanc works in the trim department and said her mom urged her to get down to the union hall and register to picket. Her mother worked in the body shop of a GM plant and experienced a strike during her career.
“Working for GM, we had a good childhood. We didn’t want for anything,” she said. “We went on vacation, had nice clothing, never ran out of food. We had a nice life.”
Truck payment coming due
Now, with the first strike check coming, UAW members wonder.
“I have my truck payment due,” said Hillary Schocke, 32, of Davison who works on the assembly line.
She and others on strike noted the irony of workers worry about making payments on trucks they helped build and love.
Again and again, workers said this strike is about America and the middle class and fighting for a way of life’s that’s disappearing and that loss is hurting our country.
“Support for labor is one of the backbones of our country. This is not just what we do but who we are,” said Bill Stroup, 69, of Montrose, an electrician for Aramark, which is also striking GM after a year and a half without a contract. “I’ve been a UAW member for 45 years. I pray for the safety of people out here and the success of an agreement.”
Monroe Murphy, 60, of Clayton Township has been with GM for 24 years. He’s a district committeeman for UAW Local 598 who said he isn’t sleeping well or eating right but he won’t give up or give in. “This is America right here.”
Solidarity amid loss
Keondris Howell, 40, of Flint stood off to the side beside an American flag and walking the picket line. He is a temporary GM assembly line worker in the trim department, which means he is a dues-paying member of the UAW but doesn’t receive regular benefits such as vacation time, despite working full time.
One of the points the union hopes to win in these talks is a path for temporary workers to become permanent. One of the things GM hopes to gain is the ability to hire more temps to give it flexibility in case of an industry downturn. Temps now make up 7% of the company’s workforce over the course of a year.
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“I come from a GM family. I have pride in what I’m doing,” he said. “This company helped mold who I am. It took care of me growing up. All my grandparents are graduates of this place. And my aunts and uncles. My mom was an accountant.”
Howell, a third-generation GM worker married to a home health care aide, noted that he commuted between a Cincinnati hospital and Flint as his little boy was dying because he didn’t qualify for paid leave or vacation or time off. “I had to be here three days after he passed. He died of heart failure, my son Savion, at age 4. And there was no bereavement.”
Erik Bond walked the picket line just a few steps away, his own loss fresh on his mind.
After his strike shift earlier in the week, he headed home to change into clothes to be a pallbearer for his grandmother’s funeral in Swartz Creek. Margaret Bond had worked for GM’s AC Spark Plug back in the day, her grandson said.
“I think she would be very proud of us.”
Follow Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter @phoebesaid