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Car industry

GM Workers Need More Than a Decent Contract

Friday 4 October 2019, by Dianne Feeley

The GM workers out on strike have been hit with concessions for years. They need more than a decent contract — they need a transformational agreement that puts workers’ rights before GM’s profits.

On the picket lines at the Detroit-Hamtramck General Motors plant, people drop by to bring doughnuts, coffee, and pizzas. Bernie Sanders’s supporters swelled the mid-morning picketing earlier this week, joining strikers from GM plants as far away as Toledo and Flint to meet up with Sanders. Alongside Ford and Chrysler workers were contingents from Wayne State University and the Metro Detroit DSA.

In brief remarks, Sanders thanked strikers for standing up to a corporation that pays its CEO $22 million but which immediately dropped workers’ health care benefits when they walked out. (After being shamed by Sanders and others, GM backtracked Thursday and reinstated workers’ health insurance.) [1]

The strike is nearing the end of its second week, with GM and the nearly fifty thousand workers — sprawled across several states and represented by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) — still very much at odds. The fundamental conflict: GM’s unceasing drive to shave labor costs and strikers’ insistence that past concessions be reversed. [2]

Workers find the company’s initial offer of 2 percent wage increases in two of the four years of the proposed contract insulting. And they’re even more incensed by GM’s various schemes to slice up the workforce into different tiers. Long-term temporary workers, for instance, perform the same jobs but have no protection. One Ford worker, Eric Truss, printed and distributed T-shirts with the message “Temps lives matter.”

The UAW, a product of the mass strikes of the 1930s, was organized as an industrial union with autoworkers of all types who basically made the same wage. [3] But in 2007, following years of concessions, the union negotiators accepted another giveback: tiered wages and benefits. The logic was that the concessions would provide workers a modicum of stability. The actual upshot: UAW members are no longer all in the same boat.

For production workers hired before 2007, the hourly wage is $31, including benefits like health care (with a 3 percent contribution). Those hired after 2007 are on a lower tier, where they will never reach the same wages and benefits as the so-called traditional worker. During the last contract negotiations, workers rejected the first deal because it failed to eliminate the two-tier system. The second version, which barely passed, built an eight-year bridge to bring the top two-tier wage to $28. (GM refers to these workers as “in progression.”)

From the company’s point of view, the way to bring down labor costs is to keep cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) off the negotiating table and continue carving up the workforce into tiers. In addition to the second-tier workers, GM likes using temporary workers because they are paid $15 to $19 an hour; never gain seniority, benefits, or job protection; are forced to work overtime; and receive three unpaid vacation days a year. The company would like to expand their temp pool — doubling or tripling the 7 percent it is now — so they have maximum flexibility to select their workforce.

The temporary workers — of which there are about four thousand — hope to be made permanent this time around. If not, many will be unwilling to spend the next four years in limbo. GM management must believe that even in this low-unemployment economy, there are others willing to hire in as temps.

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