“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.”