Voices from the Strike wave: General Motors

Members of the United Auto Workers have been on strike at General Motors for one month.  In Southern California, about fifty nine people work at two General Motors auto parts distribution facilities in Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana.  Here are some of the stories they shared, as best as I can recall.

When we first arrived there were three men walking in front of the plant’s driveway in a semicircle with signs reading, “UAW on Strike;” two older white guys and a younger Latino.  One had worked at GM forty years; he was in his seventies, but looking at him, you’d think he was still in his mid-50’s.  Another was the local UAW representative.  I started talking with the third striker, a younger guy who wore a black ball hat.

People start at fifteen dollars an hour, and because you have the least seniority, you are second shift, so you start at $15.85 an hour.  It takes about one year to get in permanent.  Then you get a raise to $17 dollars an hour.  You get a dollar raise each year, until you are making $25 an hour.  I am tier 3, hired after 2016.  I have four and a half years on the job.  Tier two makes $28 an hour and tier one, the old timers, they make over $30 an hour.  We have five people on the picket line twenty-four hours a day between these two locations.  The benefits are great, we don’t pay for anything.  I’ve got a wife and kids and they are on my benefits.  They want us to pay 15% for insurance.

I have one of the lowest seniority on first shift and highest on second shift, so I bounce between first and second shift.  Here we stock and distribute auto parts to car dealerships all over the west coast.  They bring in parts and we distribute them to service dealers; one area is fenders, doors, big items; the other bolts, nuts, and other smaller car components.

Ford and Chrysler are here too.  They get what we get, set the pattern for bargaining.

One of the older men jumped in.

Mary Barra, the CEO of GM is a no-good S.O.B.  They make $32 billion in annual profits.    The UAW helped bail out GM after the economy crashed in 2009; we gave up a lot in concessions.  Now they want even more.  They want new hires to work as temps for five to seven years.  They only get three sick days, and are at-will, non-union, doing the same work as we do.  It used to be you were a temp, non-union, for 90 days.

Have you ever been to Pontiac, Michigan?  After GM closed the plant there, it became a ghost town.  They even made people who live in the outer areas move back into the city.  The city has lost so much tax revenue they couldn’t afford the upkeep on roads, lights, and water.  We are fighting to keep good paying jobs.

The younger guy motioned to the parking lot beyond a hedge of tall bushes.

I’ve seen some dealer cars, in here, Mark Christopher, some other GM dealers in the lot.  They have in services, training, but we think they may be taking parts back they need for their dealerships.  They’re small businesses, and without the parts, they have to shut down, but still…  we’re on strike here for all of us, the whole community.

Carlos arrived.  He was busy earlier in the day, spending some time with his wife and kid, and apologized for being a few minutes late to his shift at the picket line.  He wore a wide brim straw hat and large sunglasses.

He started out at GM as a temp making $14.50 an hour, was a temp a year and a half.  Then he made permanent and has been at the auto parts distributor for four and a half years.  When he became permanent, they bumped him up to $17 an hour.  He makes $20 now and works second shift.

He lives in Fontana with his wife and son.  They just had their first baby, less than a year ago.  They pay $2,050 a month for a three-bedroom apartment.

We were looking for cheaper places, but everywhere we looked it was 2,400, 2,500 a month for the same thing, so we’re just staying where we are.  She is a stay at home mom.  When she had the baby, she quit her job in retail.  With the cost of childcare, we would have had to pay several hundred, four or five hundred a week in childcare.  It wouldn’t even be worth her working; so she decided to just stay at home with her own baby.

What I want is a forever home for my son, somewhere where he doesn’t have to worry about moving from apartment to apartment, getting kicked out and having to move from place to place every time the rent goes up.  I want to be able to buy a place one day, a forever home, somewhere where he can grow up and live, and not have to worry about a roof over his head.

My dad was a gardener.  He was an immigrant.  We’d all help out, the entire family going out working, since I was seven years old.  We moved all the time, sometimes we even lived in hotels.  That’s why I want what I want for my son.  A forever home, so that he doesn’t have to go through what we did.

Just then a black woman, another UAW member, pulled up in a blue Chevy Elantra.  Her two children ran out of the car, onto the sidewalk, plopping down on lawn chairs by some tables stacked with snacks and food supporters had brought under the shade of a few trees growing by the sidewalk.  Some of the guys helped her take a cooler out of her trunk.  On the bottom right of her Chevy a bumper sticker read Bernie Sanders: Lets Rebuild America

A white guy with a blue hat and aviator sunglasses.  He said he also was a factory worker.

In Tennessee and North Carolina, they’ve got Honda plants, factories – you know – GM’s competitors that are 50% temps.

Carlos responded, explaining the situation at the UAW.

Yeah, even at GM, we hear that in other states, they’ve got temps who have been working in the auto factories five to eight years.

This isn’t just about permanent good paying union jobs in America.  In Sinaloa, Mexico, two auto plants with 4,500 workers just closed.  Before they were locked out, we heard that the some of the unionists among the Sinaloa auto workers got fired because they organized to stop speedups and mandatory overtime;  GM wanted to make them work to make up production while the US factories were on strike.

Our auto parts distributor takes care of all of California, Carlos continued, distributing parts to all the GM dealerships.  We got Las Vegas back from the GM parts distributor in Reno a few years ago because of how productive and efficient we are.

Victor, a political organizer for the UAW, approached us on the picket line.  A Latino man with a slightly greying goatee, he wore a red UAW shirt and spoke rapidly.  He had been meetings with legislators and assemblymen all morning.  They’ve had a lot of support, from legislators, from churches.

We are on strike at General Motors now going into four weeks. What happens at GM will set the pattern for what workers get at Ford and Chrysler, and in many ways for all manufacturing and manual labor jobs in the country.

The United Auto Workers gave up a lot of concessions and used our political power to get the Obama administration to bail out GM when they almost went bankrupt after the 2008 crash.  Now they want to take even more.

We gave up washup time then, ten minutes a day to wash up and make sure all our personal protective safety equipment and work area could be cleaned and maintained.  Wages, benefits, you name it.  We lobbied hard for the government to bail out General Motors.  They called it shared sacrifice to keep our jobs and keep the doors open.

I used to be president of UAW Local 230.   Even though we were UAW, we helped the Teamsters organize the drivers who picked up and dropped up supplies and products at our plant.  When we went on strike, the Teamsters wouldn’t cross our picket line.

Here they have outsourced transportation.  Its non-union.

I was speaking to legislators earlier this morning, we have legislation that we want California legislators to support that would make sure car companies, and other employers who get green energy and other environmental subsidies provide living wage jobs.  We are working with the Sierra Club, and others on this.

I read Elon Musk’s Tesla is notorious for paying low wages, firing workers who want a union, and for their workplace safety, I mentioned.

Yeah, he grimaced.  The UAW has been trying to organize Tesla for a long while.

After a bit, two black men, an older one who I thought was a retiree, and one in his thirties showed up on the picket line.  The older guy, tall lanky, spoke slowly and deliberately.  He worked for Delphi when they went on strike in ’97, ’98.

GM spun them off.  I worked for Delco and then Lear Seating; they closed, got rid of everyone, paid ‘em in stock and pensions.

These companies didn’t live up to our collective bargaining agreement.  They’ll try to short peoples checks, their retirement credits, and say that they can’t find the paperwork.  Then we go through our pay stubs, our own records, show them in the grievance meeting, and they mysteriously find the paperwork.  They make up some excuse, they misplaced the paperwork and it took longer to find.  Yeah, bullshit, there’s something wrong with their system.  They know where everything is, they just didn’t’ want to get you what they owe you.

We’ve had people who worked here, had green cards, for whatever reason didn’t become citizens.  When they retired, GM didn’t want to pay them their pensions, asking if their green card was real.  Ha, he chuckled, they didn’t ask about their green card when they worked the hell out of them for ten, twenty years.  Now they want to ask about their documents when it’s time to pay their pension.

People should be saving money, to get ready to strike, or for whatever comes up.  Save 5% a check.  If you want to, you can save, it doesn’t matter how much you make, if you don’t have a mindset to save, you won’t save, but if you are determined you can put away a little bit each week.

People have been bringing food, Ralph’s cards for groceries, food, canned goods.  Diapers.  We have more support than we imagined.  We didn’t think it could be this long.  We can’t go back, how you want to, how do you expect to win anything, yeah you get a check every week, but it’s the principal of the thing.

It’s taken a long suffering for our parents, our ancestors for us to get where we are today.  What are we going to do, just give all that up.

The first strikes, in 1936, 1939, they’d go right into the plant and sit on the product.

GM, they are serious.  They’ve been getting rid of employees.  It used to be there was job and be responsible now we multitask – each person has several different jobs. GM used to have 600,000 employees, now its 60,000 if you’re lucky.  Both Ford and Chrysler have more.  They’re still making a profit head over heels.

People aren’t looking at the big picture, all our unions are under siege.  The post office, the service workers.  These companies the government don’t want us to have a right to demand pay.

People have a right to live.

It used to be one person could work pay for things.  The wife could stay with the kids.  Now everyone workers, the wife and husband are going in different directions to maintain jobs.

Properties out here are very expensive.  We should have a right to live the community where we work, instead people are spending two three hours going to work and home.  People used to be able to walk to work or ride their bike to work.  You can’t do that anymore.

I’ve been at different facilities.  A lot of the plants closed that came here.  I’ve worked in the parts division since 2000, I was assembly before, started at fisher body, that’s long since gone.  You know, they reformulate, readjust.  We know what that means.

My uncle was a Pullman Porter, they would stop in these towns in Missouri, and they wouldn’t even let the porters, the black workers off the train.  My grandfather was a janitor at Caterpillar, when it was time for him to collect his retirement, they said they didn’t have any record that he worked there.  What do you mean you don’t know he didn’t work there?  We had to fight for him to get a little check to live off of in his old age.

You’re gonna have to put out to get what you need.  We’re not just talking.  No pain no gain.  You got to put an effort to get something in this world.

After thirty one days on strike, CNN has reported that General Motors and the UAW have come to a tentative agreement, one that union members will vote on before returning to work in the coming days.

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