Nearly 50,000 General Motors workers walked off the job and formed picket lines Monday in the industry’s biggest major labor action in over a decade.
Talks between the union and the GM management collapsed over the weekend prompting union leadership to unanimously vote to strike, starting at midnight on Sunday. The workers want higher wages and a narrowing of the disparity in pay for new hires and longtime workers, as well as better healthcare and a plan to keep idled plants open, according to the New York Times.
The United Auto Workers union, which represents the workers, says the company is putting profits ahead of its workers by closing plants while raking in $8.1 billion globally last year. There are 55 unionized General Motors across ten states, according to the company, all of which are affected by the strike, although the union says work stoppages are happening in 19 states.
It’s the first major labor action among auto workers since 2007, when they went on strike as the recession loomed and jobs were being cut at the plants. Auto manufacturing is still a significant part of the economy, employing nearly 250,000 people. During the recession, fewer than 200,000 were making cars in the U.S.
Four General Motors manufacturing plants are currently slated for closure, and the company has reportedly made an offer to keep two of those plants, one in Lordstown, Ohio and one in Detroit, open, according to CNN. While the company hasn’t made their offer public, a person familiar with the offer told CNN that the plan would include converting those plants to build electric cars and batteries to power them.
The striking workers blocked off the entry to a plant in Flint, Michigan on Monday morning, according to the Detroit Free Press, and a few of the workers reported being bumped by cars as they tried to push through the strikers to get into the plant. Though the production workers are on strike, the white-collar people at the factory in Flint were still expected to be at work.
“Thing is, I think most of these people on salary get it — 95% are nodding their heads as they pass by,” James Bothell, who builds motors on the assembly line for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, told the Detroit Free Press. “I think a strike is long overdue, to be honest.”
But walkouts and strikes are happening more and more frequently in the U.S., and support for organized labor is on the rise, especially among young people. In 2018, more workers participated in a work stoppages than had since the 1980s, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, just 10 percent of the U.S. workforce is unionized.
And politicians with national profiles have taken note. The Democratic presidential candidates have taken note of the historic strike. Sen. Bernie Sanders tweets his support, as did Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.
President Donald Trump, whose trade war with China has strained manufacturers, tweeted about the strike on Sunday night, too, urging the company and the workers to “Get together and make a deal!”
General Motors has enough inventory to last 77 days while its workers are on strike, according to the New York Times. While they’re striking, the workers will get strike pay of $250 a week from the union — a fraction of what they’d make working.
The strike comes amid allegations of corruption in the upper ranks of the union. One official allegedly used cash earmarked for a training center run by the union to buy himself a Ferrari and renovate his house, and the head of one of the union’s regional offices was charged last week with fraud and money laundering.
Editor's note 9/16 5:04 p.m.: The story has been updated to include the union's estimation of the number of states affected by the strikes.
Cover: Jeff Elkins, a 37-year-old General Motors employee who works on the line, waves a United Auto Workers flag as employees leave the Flint Assembly Plant at midnight as part of the national strike on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, in Flint, Michigan. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP)