GM strike: UAW members speak out from picket lines

The hottest stop on the presidential campaign trail is the GM picket line

GM strike: UAW members speak out from picket lines
US 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren joins members of the United Auto Workers as they picket outside of General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly in Detroit, Michigan, on September 22, 2019. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

The General Motors picket line is a hot campaign stop these days.

Several presidential front-runners have stopped by, or are planning to stop by, one of the 53 GM factories where autoworkers are on strike for the second week in a row.

Nearly 50,000 employees stopped working after contract negotiations broke down last week between GM and the United Automobile Workers union. Employees want the company to restore generous pay and benefits that were cut during the Great Recession. GM executives don’t want to do that at a time when economists are warning about another potential recession.

Meanwhile, Democrats vying for the White House have picked sides — and they’re with workers.

Amy Klobuchar was the first to meet with GM employees. She brought workers doughnuts Thursday as they picketed outside a factory in Detroit, where they build Cadillacs and Chevys.

On Sunday, Elizabeth Warren blasted the automaker when she joined a picket line at the same Detroit factory.

“GM is demonstrating that it has no loyalty to the workers of America or the people of America,” she said, according to the New York Times. “Their only loyalty is to their own bottom line. And if they can save a nickel by moving a job to Mexico or to Asia or to anywhere else on this planet, they will do it.”

In Kansas City, Kansas, that same day, Joe Biden was speaking to GM workers who build the Chevy Malibu and the Cadillac XT4.

“We didn’t bail out GM, [United Automobile Workers] bailed out GM,” Biden told the crowd. “You gave up more than anybody.”

On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders plans meet with GM workers in Detroit.

These campaign stops are just the latest example of Democrats trying to outdo each other to win the blue-collar vote.

Candidates vying for the White House know that union support (and endorsements) are crucial to their success, and they’ve been working hard to show their support for striking fast-food workers, supermarket employees and now, autoworkers. The GM strike, in particular, gives Democrats a unique opportunity to reach disillusioned Trump voters.

Picket lines give candidates a captive audience

It’s not just striking autoworkers who got attention from Democrats this week. On Saturday, Sen. Kamala Harris marched with striking McDonald’s workers in Iowa, and Julián Castro has previously rallied with the cooks and cashiers there, too.

Democrats have long focused their campaigns on working-class voters, particularly unionized workers, who are the most ly to go to the polls. But in the 2020 race so far, candidates are doing more than just visiting union halls. They’re making a dramatic show of joining in the demonstrations, actively siding with workers while railing against corporate America.

In April, Warren, Sanders, Biden, and Pete Buttigieg all made a point of showing their support for Stop and Shop supermarket employees during a 10-day strike against a corporate push to cut employee benefits.

“When workers fight, workers win,” Warren said to a group of workers picketing outside one of the chain’s stores in Massachusetts. She brought them doughnuts, too.

A month later, Castro, Jay Inslee, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rallied with workers in three cities where McDonald’s employees had organized a work stoppage to demand a $15 hourly wage and the right to join a labor union.

“We’re here to tell McDonald’s that it’s not acceptable to pay workers a wage they can’t live on,” Castro told a crowd of McDonald’s workers in Durham, North Carolina, at the time.

The GM workers strike has added significance, considering that President Donald Trump repeatedly vowed to revive US manufacturing jobs during his 2016 campaign. So far, Trump has not kept that promise to his blue-collar base, and it’s giving Democrats a chance to win them back.

The GM strike is an opportunity for Democrats, and a problem for Trump

General Motors caused an uproar in November when it announced plans to close up to five factories in the US and Canada and cut more than 14,000 jobs over the next two years.

The automaker said that consumers weren’t buying enough cars the Chevy Cruze and that the overhaul would save the company $6 billion. GM also blamed President Trump, whose tariffs on imported steel have cost the company $1 billion.

GM’s decision to cut jobs and close factories sparked a backlash from lawmakers in Canada and the United States. Sen.

Sherrod Brown (D-OH) called it “corporate greed at its worst,” pointing out that GM received millions in corporate tax cuts but failed to use the money to invest in its workers.

However, the company recently moved forward with its plan to build its new Chevy Blazer in Mexico, a decision that further frustrated US labor unions that want those jobs to go to American workers.

Trump was also reportedly furious about the decision. GM produces electric cars, and buyers in the US can get a federal tax break for purchasing one. So Trump threatened to cut those subsidies for GM vehicles if the company cut American jobs — a move he can’t do without Congress.

But Trump’s threats haven’t worked, and GM employees are trying to accomplish what the president could not.

Their union, United Automobile Workers, had been negotiating another four-year contract when talks broke down last week, right as the previous contract expired.

The deal they are hashing out will serve as a template for the union’s new contracts with Ford and Chrysler, too.

What GM workers get at the end of their strike will determine what hundreds of thousands of autoworkers have to live with.

From Georgia to Michigan, outside more than 50 US factories, workers have been picketing around the clock, venting their anger over the company’s recent decisions. They are demanding — among other things — that GM keeps jobs in the US and reopen its idled factories.

Nearly all of the 2020 front runners have expressed their solidarity.

I'm proud to stand with the hardworking members of @UAW in their fight for fair wages, health care, and job security. @GM should do right by the workers who fuel its profits.

— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) September 16, 2019

As Democrats continue courting autoworkers, one notable 2020 candidate has stayed away from the picket lines: the president.

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UAW strike could cost GM up to $100 million per day

GM strike: UAW members speak out from picket lines

As talks continued into the night with no end to the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors, the union walkout could prove costly. By one estimate, the hit to the automaker could reach $100 million per day.

Fifty-five factories and parts warehouses are at a standstill after the walkout by about 48,000 UAW members. It's the union's first strike against the No. 1 U.S. automaker in more than a decade, with autoworkers joining the walkout over issues including job security, pay and medical coverage.

At 11:59, UAW-GM workers began their strike.

— UAW (@UAW) September 16, 2019

The strike's financial impact could be high, with Citigroup estimating GM could lose as much as $100 million in operating income for each day of the strike, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Workers left factories and formed picket lines shortly after midnight Monday in the dispute over a new four-year contract. The union's top negotiator said in a letter to the company that the strike could have been averted had the company made its latest offer sooner.

The letter dated Sunday suggests that management and union leaders are not as far apart as the rhetoric leading up to the strike had indicated. Negotiations continued Monday in Detroit after breaking off during the weekend.

But union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said the two sides have come to terms on only 2% of the contract. “We've got 98% to go,” he said Monday.

Federal mediation possible?

Asked about the possibility of federal mediation, President Donald Trump said it's possible if the company and union want it.

“Hopefully they'll be able to work out the GM strike quickly,” Trump said before leaving the White House for a New Mexico campaign event and West Coast fundraising. “Hopefully, they're going to work it out quickly and solidly.”

Wall Street did not seeing the union picketers. GM shares closed Monday down 4.2% to $37.21.

Picket line worries

On the picket line Monday at GM's transmission plant in Toledo, Ohio, workers who said they have been with the company for more than 30 years were concerned for younger colleagues who are making less money under GM's two-tier wage scale and have fewer benefits.

Paul Kane, from South Lyon, Michigan, a 42-year GM employee, said much of what the union is fighting for will not affect him.

“It's not right when you're working next to someone, doing the same job and they're making a lot more money,” he said. “They should be the making the same as me. They've got families to support.”

Kane said GM workers gave up pay raises and made other concessions to keep GM afloat during its 2009 trip through federal bankruptcy protection during the financial crisis.

“Now it's their turn to pay us back,” he said. “That was the promise they gave.”


UAW Vice President Terry Dittes told GM that the company's latest offer might have made it possible to reach an agreement if it had come earlier.

“We are disappointed that the company waited until just two hours before the contract expired to make what we regard as its first serious offer,” Dittes wrote in the letter to Scott Sandefur, GM's vice president of labor relations.

There are many important items left in the talks, including wage increases, pay for new hires, job security, profit sharing and treatment of temporary workers, Dittes wrote.

“We are willing to meet as frequently, and for as long as it takes, to reach an agreement that treats our members fairly,” the letter said.

GM: $7 billion offer

GM issued a statement saying it wants to reach a deal that builds a strong future for workers and the business.

The automaker said Sunday it offered pay raises and $7 billion worth of U.S. factory investments that will result in 5,400 new positions, a minority of which would be filled by existing employees.

GM would not give a precise number.

The company also said it offered higher profit sharing, “nationally leading” health benefits and an $8,000 bonus payment to each worker upon ratification of the new contract.

The offer we presented to the UAW prioritizes employees, communities and builds a stronger future for all. It includes improved wages and health care benefits, over $7B in U.S. investments and 5,400 jobs. Let's come together and secure our shared future:

— General Motors (@GM) September 15, 2019

Before the talks broke off, GM offered new products to replace work at two of four U.S. factories that it intends to close.

The company pledged to build a new all-electric pickup truck at a factory in Detroit, according to a person who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The person was not authorized to disclose details of the negotiations.

Lordstown, Ohio

The automaker also offered to open an electric vehicle battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where it has a huge factory that has already stopped making cars and will be closed. The new factory would be in addition to a proposal to make electric vehicles for a company called Workhorse, the person said.

It's unclear how many workers the two plants would employ. The closures, especially of the Ohio plant, have become issues in the 2020 presidential campaign. President Donald Trump has consistently criticized the company and demanded that Lordstown be reopened.

Final shift at Ohio GM plant 03:35

Kristin Dziczek, vice president of labor and industry for the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank, said the letter and resumption of contract talks are encouraging signs. “It makes me think that both sides are probably closer than it might have seemed before,” she said.

But both Dziczek and Art Wheaton, an auto industry expert at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, say GM left out key details when it made part of its offer public, and working out those details could make the strike last longer.

“I think GM kind of sabotaged some of the negotiations by going immediately to the public,” Wheaton said. “It really distorts the offer.”

The strike shut down 33 manufacturing plants in nine states across the U.S., as well as 22 parts-distribution warehouses. It's the first national strike by the union since a two-day walkout in 2007 that had little impact on the company.

Workers at Fiat Chrysler and Ford continued working under contract extensions. Any agreement reached with GM will serve as a template for talks with the other two companies.


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