On Saturday, Sept. 14, the contract between the United Automobile Workers union (UAW) and General Motors Co. (GM) expired. Disputes between the UAW and GM over wages, benefits and working conditions led to the union’s refusal of a new proposed contract. On Monday, Sept. 16, after no compromise had been met, a strike made up of nearly 50,000 workers from 33 different GM facilities began.
While each individual has their own issues with GM’s practices, the essence of the strike has to do with the two-tier pay system GM employs and it’s treatment of temporary workers.
University of Michigan-Flint Associate Professor Jason Kosnoski, who teaches about the labor movement, explained the tier system, saying, “There’s a stereotype that all auto workers make a lot of money… 50 dollars an hour. Now it’s possible that you can make 35-40 dollars an hour … but that’s the upper tier. Most people are hired in on the lower tier with no chance of ever making that much money.”
All individuals hired within these tiers are considered GM employees and therefore receive GM employee benefits. These include health insurance, retirement plans, paid time-off and a variety of other assistances. However, as Kosnoski explained, there is another group that does not qualify for such advantages.
“There’s actually a third tier too, of temps and subcontractors. The janitors that clean the plants actually work for another company. Even though they work the same plant, they work next to everybody else, they make even less money.”
Because they are contract workers, GM does not provide them with the same benefits as that of an employee. The UAW sees this as a slight toward temporary workers.
“If you look up the definition of temp it means short term. We have some temps who have been working for General Motors for nine years. This is with very limited to no insurance and things like that. And at any given time they say, ‘Oh by the way thank you but after today you’re gone.’ and that’s not right.” said Sherry, a GM worker of 34 years who chose not to disclose her last name.
“We just want to share it [benefits] with everybody. We want those temporaries to have a permanent job so they can confidently know they’re always going to have an income to take care of their family and their livelihood.”
While the strike is on its fourth day, the UAW and GM are no closer to reaching an agreement. GM has shown it means business by cutting off healthcare to its protesting employees. To offset the negative effects of a prolonged strike, the UAW will step in and provide workers with insurance through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) and give them a weekly wage of $250.
When asked how long she was prepared to strike, Mel, a GM worker of 22 years who also chose not to disclose her last name, said, “as long as it takes.”
This commitment to striking for as long as necessary is a sentiment shared among many GM workers, and has been for a long time. After the 2007 government bailout of the auto industry, GM has remained a profitable company. Workers who agreed to have their wages cut are wondering why they haven’t received a raise.
“Why can’t we get a baby sliver of that pie?” Sherry said, “We’re not asking for the whole pie just a fair sliver. That’s all we’re asking for.”
While some GM employees are feeling the stress of the strike already, Kosnoski, along with the protesters, are hoping that they can reach a compromise that can alleviate their problems, however long that takes.
“If the workers have the fortitude, if they have the wherewithal, if they have the stamina to keep it up they shouldn’t compromise at this point,” said Kosnoski. “The company is profitable. Why shouldn’t the workers get some sort of benefit from that?”