Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press
Published 8:10 AM EDT Sep 16, 2019
FLINT, Mich. — The wife of a General Motors employee posted on her private Facebook page Sunday, “Well, I can only pray this strike is short.”
Mary Jo Burchart of Lake Orion is one of tens of thousands of family members watching contract negotiations between the UAW and General Motors with caution and hope. This is the first strike on an automaker since 2007. These are uncertain times.
Hourly workers say publicly and privately they are unified and committed to good pay and benefits. Many also say they are working hard to follow closely the negotiations and learn more about why their leaders called the strike, and how to bring it to conclusion as quickly as possible.
UAW talks with GM are to resume at 10 a.m. Monday.
Aside from the stress, union members get just $250 a week in strike pay.
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“My concern is not just for myself, but for the many other families that are affected by this strike,” said Ralph Burchart, a member of UAW Local 659 who works at Flint Tool and Die just east of Kettering University. He’s been with GM 30 years.
“Our kids are grown and married, but I have co-workers with younger children who would have a much harder time of it if this is an extended strike,” he said. “My hope and prayer is that a reasonable contract that benefits both parties would be agreed upon sooner rather than later.”
He will take his turn on strike duty shifts in coming days, along with so many others. For now, he is watching things unfold with apprehension.
Flint is a place that carries with it great history and great sadness. It’s the birthplace of General Motors and became a symbol of decay of the industrial Midwest. The atmosphere throughout the city and specifically at the union locals across the street is a complicated stew of possibility and struggle.
‘I’m not scared’
Dominique Birdsong of Flint, who works in the chassis department building the Chevrolet Silverado, stood among GM workers early Monday chanting on the picket line outside the Flint Assembly Plant. The strike, she said, hurts everybody.
“I do pray about this, to have a good outcome. If somebody prays, I ask that they pray for us. Or just send us good vibes,” said Birdsong. “I’m not scared, I’m hopeful. Because we’re determined. We will rally together for the Middle Class.”
Light rain at 12:40 a.m.
A crowd gathered outside Flint Assembly before the 11:59 p.m. ET strike time. And then it just grew and grew to include workers such as Tajuana Elam of Grand Blanc, who has been in the trim department for 25 years. The strike hit her hard.
“It’s emotional,” she said, noting that she has three children, and working “long, odd hours” that include mandatory Saturday shifts isn’t easy. “We’re coming together for a cause we shouldn’t have to – we have a right to have fair wages and health care.
Solitude amid protest
As strike activists chanted outside along Van Slyke Road, tooting their horns and cheering, Joe Baker of Schwarz Creek stood alone in the union hall stapling protest signs. The click of a stapler echoed loudly as the GM fork truck driver, who has worked at the plant 25 years, silently stacked homemade signs past 2 a.m.
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“Right now, I just want to kind of help set things up,” he said. “I love the solidarity and commitment we have to each other. We are the union. We are the UAW. But I feel distrust for the company. In the plant, they always want more and more but for nothing.”
The soul of the company, how it feels now, has changed, he said.
Bobbie N. Carruth of Flint attended Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday at 11 a.m., then worked her shift in truck quality at the plant, which makes the profitable Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, before standing in the light rain after midnight as the strike began.
“I pray that the union and the management reach agreement for the working people and the retirees. People just can’t make it on the low wages,” she said, taking a rest inside the quiet UAW Local 659 hall.
Carruth is among many union members who expressed loyalty to the mission and skepticism for leadership of the UAW International, which has been paralyzed by a corruption scandal over misuse of union money that has now implicated the current president, Gary Jones.
She said she thought the investigation played a role in the strike. “I pray to God everybody do the right thing all the time. Live an open book life and we’ll be fine.”
Nikki Guevara of Clio, an instrument panel assembler, asked that the public just reflect on the number of lives touched by the auto industry and practice kindness and understanding for hardworking people. She said she’s saddened by the fighting within the union since the leadership scandals and wished all attention could be focused on unified message.
“We don’t get a lot of public support. General Motors does a great job of trying to make us look spoiled and overpaid,” said Guevara, who has worked at the plant eight years. “We break our bodies for this company.”
Steve Gruener, president of UAW Local 659, said calls and texts have come in from Teamsters, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees saying they would not cross picket lines to work for GM.
Struggle versus ‘lavish living’
“You’re looking at $8 billion worth of profits last year,” said Flint Councilman Eric Mays, a retired GM worker, who stopped to greet strike workers after 1 a.m., an hour after the action officially began. (GM profit for 2018 actually was $10.8 billion.)
“We are fighting for better working conditions,” he said.
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But Mays then raised the issue of integrity and trust and questions about the national UAW leaders, and expressed gratitude for the FBI cleanup effort.
“I’m concerned about it,” he said. “In the middle of negotiations, we’ve got to get the confidence of the rank and file back. … The higher-ups, the regional directors and the presidents cannot do what they’re doing when rank and file and retirees like myself struggle. They can’t have that lavish living. And so I think it’s a wake-up call. I think the timing of the indictments and the timing of the strike will coincide for the better good.”
Mays did not suggest Jones step aside from running the organization, noting that everybody at the negotiation table is “innocent today.” He added, “But it ain’t lookin’ good based on those who have already admitted wrongdoing.”
While so much attention focused on GM workers, industrial janitorial and sanitation workers employed by Aramark who service the plant also are on strike. Everybody is on the picket line together. And the UAW asked the janitorial team, which has been without a contract for more than a year at Flint Assembly, to walk out first.
Follow Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter: @phoebesaid