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FOR THE WEEK OF SEP. 23, 2019

Auto workers’ strike against General Motors reflects a new era of labor activism

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General Motors and the United Auto Workers, its largest union, are bracing for a long and costly fight now in its second week. More than 49,000 workers at 33 factories and 22 parts distribution warehouses went on strike Sept. 15 in the first GM walkout since 2007. They are asking for more pay and the reopening of closed plants, among other things. "This company has been extremely profitable for a long period," says Chuck Browning, a regional union director. "Those profits have been made off the sweat and the hard work of our members, and our members want a fair agreement." GM earned $8.1 billion last year.

Workers walked out when their last contract expired and negotiators for each side couldn’t agree on a new one. GM wants employees to pay a bigger share of their health care costs. It also wants to increase workforce productivity and flexibility in factories. One union goal is getting GM to reopen a car factory in Lordstown, Ohio, something President Trump endorses. The Detroit-based company closed that plant, and others in Baltimore and Warren, Mich., as part of a cost-cutting effort that eliminated 2,800 factory jobs and thousands of white-collar positions. "They are expanding in China and Mexico while closing plants in the U.S. It's very hard to take," says Dan Maloney, president of a union local in Rochester, N.Y.

Workers get $250 a week in strike pay from the union, far less than they usually earn. Dues from UAW members outside the auto industry help support the strike fund. As talks continue, the company suspended strikers' health insurance – now covered by a union fund. "They're pouring gasoline on the fire," comments Harry Katz, a labor professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "This induces the workers to get more angry. GM thinks this will scare them or get them to rethink the cost of their benefits. I think it's going to backfire. It's quick, rash and insensitive."

The walkout is part of a surge of labor activism. America in recent years has seen more strikes and longer ones, including by teachers. Each successful strike shows other workers what is possible, inspiring still more. That trend might continue, partly because high-income Americans' wealth has expanded while workers in the middle and bottom income brackets have stagnated. The GM strike's national impact that will spread the longer it lasts. It immediately stopped GM vehicle production in the United States, and could affect Canadian and Mexican plants eventually. Thousands of parts suppliers also may have to start temporary layoffs as their work for GM awaits a settlement.

GM says: "We understand strikes are difficult and disruptive to families. While on strike, some benefits shift to being funded by the union's strike fund, and in this case hourly employees are eligible for union-paid [medical insurance] so their health care benefits can continue." – Company statement

Worker says: "This is long overdue. We come to work every day, we work harder and we deserve better than what we get." -- Rachel Drummond, third-generation GM employee in Rochester, N.Y.

Past federal official says: "GM is playing hardball in a big way. I think [suspending health insurance] is a calculated decision to pressure the union. But it's like throwing a red flag before the bull." -- William B. Gould former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for NIEonline.com, Copyright 2019
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