Autoworkers buoyed by solidarity

Tentative pact reached after nationwide strike

In an unprecedented show of solidarity across the country, labor got behind the nation’s autoworkers as they went out on strike against General Motors last week.

It started when 73,000 workers streamed out of their workplaces Sept. 24 at GM plants across the nation, forming picket lines and beginning the first nationwide auto strike in 37 years.

Almost immediately, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters honored the united picket lines put up by the United Auto Workers union. “This is a fight against corporate America’s attack on the workers,” Teamster President James Hoffa declared.

GM’s ability to move everything from finished cars to automotive parts in or out of its plants ground to a halt without the 10,000 Teamsters needed to do the work.

Out on the sun-drenched picket lines, autoworkers were moved, sometimes to tears, when they saw support pouring in from other workers and from neighbors in their communities.

“We were overwhelmed by the support during the walkout,” Mike Sheridan, president of Local 905 in Jamesville, Wis., said Sept. 25. “It’s amazing — the local Pizza Huts sent pizzas and a pub down the road sent breakfast omelettes.”

Workers on the picket lines and the thousands that came out to support them saw themselves not just as fighting to preserve their own standards of living but also as soldiers on the front line of a battle for all American workers.

“We’re not only taking on a company,” said Douglas Grover, who works at the GM plant in Flint, Mich., “but an entire government that doesn’t care that American manufacturing jobs are disappearing overseas.”

The two-day strike was recessed at 4 a.m. Sept. 26 when union negotiators and company representatives reached a tentative agreement. Ratification meetings with local union presidents and the membership were scheduled over the next few days.

The pact reportedly allows GM to write off $50 billion in retiree health obligations after the company puts 70 cents on the dollar, $35 billion, into a union-run trust fund to cover retiree health benefits.

According to press reports, the agreement includes a two-tier wage structure for non-manufacturing jobs and cash bonuses over the next four years. The bonuses are $3,000 this year followed by three years of lump-sum payments.

Newly hired non-manufacturing workers are the ones who will be in the second tier and could be hired for as little as $14 an hour rather than the $28 earned by the workers now doing those jobs.

GM agreed not to hike health insurance premiums that workers now pay, in exchange for the union giving up cost-of-living increases.

Full contract details were not available at press time. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger told the 4 a.m. press conference announcing the settlement that the strike broke through a wall the company had set up on the issue of job security, and said the strike was of critical importance to the negotiating teams’ ability to reach an agreement.

Previously, when the strike began, Gettelfinger said it was apparent to him that “no matter how much workers give, it is not enough and no matter how much executives get it is not enough.”

John Sweeney, president of the 12-million-member AFL-CIO, and Tom Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists union, issued strong statements of support for the strikers.

Six of the Democratic presidential candidates expressed support for the autoworkers. “I salute the courage of the autoworkers to go on strike,” John Edwards said. “Their fight for fair wages, safe workplaces, affordable health care and a secure retirement raises standards for workers all over America.”

At Local 599 in Flint, the strike machinery was in full motion one minute after the 11 a.m. deadline Sept. 24.

By 11:01 retirees and officials from the local were picketing outside GM’s Pontiac plant when workers inside began walking off their jobs. By 11:10, some 1,100 workers had streamed out of the plant gates and joined those who were on the outside. Cars passing on the highway honked their horns and gave the V for victory sign.

Workers at Michigan’s Hamtramck plant were interviewed by phone at their homes after their first day of picketing.

They said a woman who was employed at American Axle had pulled into their parking lot with a carload of sandwiches and Gatorade, which she distributed to them as they walked the picket line. The woman, they said, was repaying them for support she got when she was on strike at her company.

jwojcik @pww.org