General Motors Workers Begin Nationwide Strike

Sep 16, 2019
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Thousands of General Motors workers are picketing today. It's their first strike in a dozen years. Meanwhile, the company is still talking with the United Auto Workers in Detroit, and they're trying to hammer out a new contract. But there's a third unseen presence at the bargaining table this time - it's the U.S. Justice Department and its investigation of alleged corruption by some union leaders. Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports.

SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: Across the country, nearly 50,000 GM workers put down their work and took to the picket line at midnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES HONKING)

CWIEK: Outside the Flint assembly plant, picketing workers drew a lot of supportive honks from passersby. Jennifer Gilbert works there. She's been with GM for 13 years, nine of them at its Lordstown, Ohio, plant. Lordstown was 1 of 5 U.S. plants GM announced plans to shut down earlier this year, a major point of contention in these contract talks. Gilbert says she wants to be able to put down roots in Flint.

JENNIFER GILBERT: Job security is a big thing because I don't want to have to keep moving my family. This is my fifth plant.

CWIEK: The UAW says workers gave up a lot to help GM survive its 2009 bankruptcy and return to profitability. Now the union wants workers to have a bigger share of those profits, and it wants them shared more equally. Right now GM employs around 5,000 temporary workers who get much lower pay and benefits than their non-temp counterparts. Bill Reed is the president of UAW Local 602 in Lansing, Mich.

BILL REED: It's difficult to work on the line across from somebody you know is making half the wages and don't have the same benefits that you have but they're doing the exact same job.

CWIEK: It also takes longer for UAW line workers to reach top pay rates than it did in past years. The union hates that, though they agreed to it in their 2015 contract. So union leaders are under a lot of pressure to kill a two-tier wage system once and for all this time. But that's not the only reason they're under pressure.

Vance Pearson, a top UAW official at the bargaining table, is scheduled to be arraigned this week in Missouri on money laundering charges. Pearson's indictment highlights an ongoing federal investigation into alleged UAW corruption. The FBI even raided the homes of UAW President Gary Jones and former president Dennis Williams last month.

Peter Henning teaches law at Wayne State University and is a former federal prosecutor. He says that when the Feds investigated union leaders in the past, it was usually over suspected ties to organized crime. But this may be something entirely different.

PETER HENNING: It appears that - essentially was treating some of the funds as their own little piggy bank.

CWIEK: Some UAW officials allegedly devised a scheme to use union member dues for personal expenses like California luxury accommodations and golf. These are only allegations, and neither Jones nor Williams has been charged. Despite GM's profits right now, the automaker is looking at a possible looming recession, weakening demand and tariff challenges. It's leaning heavily on truck and SUV sales as the industry is becoming more technologically complex and electrified.

Marick Masters teaches business and labor studies at Wayne State. He wonders if union members will be reluctant to make concessions because they suspect their leaders are compromised. He thinks this may give GM a leg up.

MARICK MASTERS: I think, at this point in time, the company has the leverage because of the cloud that hangs over the UAW leadership.

CWIEK: That cloud leaves workers caught in the middle, and it could add up to the one thing no one really wants - a bitter and lengthy strike.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.