DETROIT — A festive mood at the picket line belied serious issues that have driven a wedge between the United Auto Workers and General Motors, resulting in the first national strike in 12 years. More than 49,000 GM union workers walked out Sunday night when the sides couldn’t come to an agreement over job security, factory closures, health care and a host of other issues.
“No. 1 is job security,” said John Hatline, a union official with Local 22 that represents workers at the factory. “This plant here is ‘unallocated,’ which means we don’t have a product after January, and it’s due to close. So we’re hoping that we can get a new car and truck in here so that we can continue on for our membership.”
GM has placed this Detroit site, which builds the Cadillac CT6 and Chevy Impala, into “unallocated status,” meaning its future is in doubt when the company stops making those sedans, which have fallen out of favor with consumers who continue to shift to crossovers.
Karen Huffman, who’s worked at GM for six years, called GM’s decision to build the Chevy Blazer crossover in Mexico, rather than in Detroit or another unallocated factory in Lordstown, Ohio, “corporate greed.”
She also is concerned over the company’s tiered wage system, which pays workers different rates and which the union has argued is inequitable. “For the longest time, the UAW has been looked at as the bad guy,” Huffman said. “I would challenge anyone to come into one of our plants and work a 10-, 11-hour day.”
GM contends its offer is fair and “prioritizes employees, communities and builds a stronger future for all,” it said in a statement. “It includes improved wages and health care benefits, over $7 billion in U.S. investments and 5,400 jobs.”
The strike began Sunday just before midnight, and negotiations resumed at 10 a.m. Monday. “Our goal remains to reach an agreement that builds a stronger future for our employees and our business,” GM said.
The automaker, which took the somewhat unusual step of publicly releasing its offer to the UAW, said it has “solutions” for Detroit and Lordstown factories, though it didn’t provide specifics. Reports have said GM could build an electric vehicle in Detroit. The Lordstown site, which has been the subject of intense press coverage and tweets from President Trump, could also reportedly be turned into a battery production site or sold. GM also said it will invest in eight facilities in four states and build electric trucks, which would benefit UAW workers.
Additionally, GM said it would provide raises, improve its profit sharing plan and offer a ratification bonus of $8,000 per worker. It also said it would expand its health care, which is believed to be among the best of any corporate plans, to include autism therapy, allergy testing and chiropractic care.
UAW workers counter that the strike is a last resort and is the result of concessions made that helped GM come back from its historic 2009 bankruptcy.
“Nobody wants to go out on strike. It’s something that we do only because we have to,” said Ashley Scales, an assembly line worker from Detroit. “I think GM needs to come to the table to give us a fair shake.”
A worker, who declined to give his name, said, “Bottom line — we’re not against the company. Everybody wants something for nothing. It doesn’t work that way. We’re not bashing the company. We want the company to be successful.”
The strike comes at a tenuous time for the union. Several high-ranking UAW officials are under investigation or have had charges brought against them alleging corruption, Membership has declined as GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler need fewer workers to build cars and have shifted jobs to other markets where the workers aren’t represented by the UAW.
Meanwhile, the strike immediately became a lightning rod in political circles as nearly all Democratic candidates for president offered support for the union workers, who have been a traditional part of party membership. President Trump, who captured the votes of many UAW workers in winning the White House in 2016, has urged both sides to reach a deal.
Despite the seemingly wide gulf between GM and its workers, the mood was relatively light at the picket line Monday afternoon. Horns honked in support of the workers. Bottled water was stacked near the factory’s fences, and a table sat nearby with pizza, coffee and other snacks. At one point, a DJ set up shop in the boulevard next to half a dozen news crews and began cranking Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up."