Auto worker resolve in long strike key to contract gains
A UAW "On Strike" sign, taped to the lamppost, greets all drives heading into the GM Tech Center. | A. Neal / PW

WARREN, Mich.—The midday sun burned bright above the clear blue horizon, blanketing the sprawling 710-acre campus of GM’s Tech Center in warmth—uncommon for this time of year.

Standing on the corner of South Civic Center Blvd. and Van Dyke Ave., across from the Tech Center, the cacophony of car horns and screeching tires drew my attention to the striking UAW members, marching back and forth across the main entrance. Each time a car horn blew, their fists went up in the air triumphantly—they are fighting for more than just themselves.

To the picket line’s immediate left, a broken down 18-wheeler is being attended to by a well-worn repair truck, a UAW sticker visible on its driver side door. An almost emblematic representation of the UAW’s GM strike—a dedicated group of union members committed to repairing their industry to the benefit of the next UAW generation.

Reggie Jackson, 46-year UAW member at GM. | A. Neal / PW

I made my way across the four-lane road, and toward the blue canvas strike tent—identical to the earlier one. I popped my head in, introduced myself, and headed right back out and onto the line.

But before I got to it, I met Reggie Jackson, a 46-year union member at GM. He carried a picket sign over his right shoulder, a few days’ worth of strike stubble visible on his chin.

Jackson started at GM in 1973.

“I was always interested in the design of cars, but I never became a designer,” he said. “I went from working sanitation to pylon driver, to setup operator, and eventually got into a skilled trade apprenticeship to become a metal model maker…been doing that since ’86.”

Jackson said he’d looked over the proposed UAW/GM contract, and “liked it” for the most part.

His particular issue was with timekeeping and overtime pay.

“I’ll say if you look back over the years, pre-bankruptcy, a lot of our money, well, the money we would have received in profit-sharing, went to other GM ventures. We gave up money a long time ago, and with the bailout, a lot of our people felt salty after we went in and made changes to help out GM.”

“Where once overtime kicked in after you went over your 8-hour shift, it now only kicks in after you work 40-hours,” he continued.

“How do you feel about the strike?” I asked.

“I know I’m glad we went out, but there are some folks who feel salty, they were hoping negotiations would hurry up once we went out, but to be fair, I feel skilled trades got a fair deal, not sure about hourly, but I’m thinking most everyone is satisfied,” said Jackson.

Jackson’s strike shift was ending, so I shot out one last question before he took off.

“Any concerns about how it all went down?”

“Transparency,” he said. “For locals, we have living agreements that can change at any time during the life of the national agreement—as long as it doesn’t affect the national agreement in any way, and sometimes change happens without us knowing about it…I hope from now on we’re asked about this sort of stuff.”

We shook hands, he went to the left, I went to the right and toward the picket line.

My feet caught up with Miko Collins firsta Michigan native, who took a five-year break from the cold in California’s sunny San Fernando Valley. Her eyes, along with her whole being, while tired, held a fierce intensity, a trait she inherited from her parents, both of whom spent their lives working at the Chrysler Plant.

As we made our first about-face and headed back to the other side of the plant gate, Collins said she was aware of the proposed agreement, but couldn’t express how she felt about it “without being privy to the information inside.” She was concerned.

“My biggest concern is my job security…this is my livelihood, and it’s the livelihood of a lot of the people who live here,” she said. “And when it comes down to it, we’re talking about our families—being able to provide for our families in the way that they need.

“I’m not trying to get rich here, I just want to get enough to be able to survive and take care of my family, is that too much to ask?”

For Collins, her concern with the proposed contract is two-fold: As a UAW member she wants the best for her sisters and brothers in production, but as an Aramark worker herself, the production side contract will affect the service and janitorial side strike and future contract.

Aramark workers, like Collins, walked off the job 24 hours before GM’s production line workers. At the midnight hour, Sept. 15, UAW’s 850-member Aramark unit went on strike for better wages, health insurance, vacation, and retirement.

“Overall how’s support been for the strike at the Tech Center?” I asked.

“We have some supporters, really the non-supporters are the non-union folks like Information Technology (I.T.), but this isn’t me saying anything bad about anyone who works for a living—they just have a different perspective,” Collins said. “I just want to get what I feel I’ve earned and am entitled to.

Miko Collins, three-year UAW member at Aramark/GM. | A.Neal / PW

“It’s funny they (GM and politicians) want us to support them by ‘buying American,’ yet they don’t want to invest in workers so we can buy the cars production side is building for them (GM).”

“You feel good about staying out on strike till voting ends?”

“Yes. We’ve been out this long, so we need to continue to make a stand,” said Collins. “We can’t back down now…let’s not have this be for nothing—we need to set the right tone for our relationship with GM for the next four years.”

We pulled off to the side so I could snap her photo.

I said my thanks and goodbye, moving right back onto the line, slightly behind Jenny Beasley, a 24-year UAW member at GM.

Beasley first went to GM looking to apply for a secretary job. The hiring manager said they only took Kelly services (temporary admin services) but encouraged her signing up for an apprenticeship program. Beasley’s father was a union tool and die maker, and knew about apprenticeships, so she went ahead and applied at six different locals, testing and interviewing well, before getting hired off the street in 1993.

Beasley had her hoodie pulled up and over her head, sunglasses, and a sign going back and forth between her shoulders.

I instinctively asked her about the proposed contract.

“I’ve looked over the contract highlights and I’m not one-hundred percent happy with it,” said Beasley. “One of the main issues is the temporary workers, I’ve worked side by side with the temporary workers, some of them who’ve been here for five years and they let them all go last September.

“And the way they’re changing the contract is to have them go three years before they start moving over to permanent status, but here’s the thing, they can lay you off at any time during those three years and your seniority count starts all over.”

Jenny Beasley, 26-year UAW member at GM. | A.Neal / PW

She continued: I think three years is way too long, heck, even one year is too long, I’d rather it be six months but if we have to accept something, I’d be happier if it was just one year.”

Beasley also explained the proposed contract didn’t do much for the pensions: “I was hoping they would put a bit more in the pensions, especially since I’ll be retiring in six years.”

Our conversation paused as we jumped back a bit to avoid the semi-truck making its wide turn into the Center’s entrance. Dour faces were seen along the picket line. I found out, drivers coming in and out of the Tech Center were not careful about avoiding striking workers.

A few almost accidents took place, and as explained “cops didn’t do shit to stop reckless driving.” GM is also footing the bill for cops’ overtime pay during the strike—company town protected by company thugs. But none of it comes as a surprise to these UAW members.

As we got back on the line, I asked, “Do you think the contract will pass a vote here?”

A group of UAW striking workers waits to cross over the GM Tech center main gate. | A. Neal / PW

“I think it’ll go down here,” she said. “We voted it down the last time we negotiated a contract. I can’t say about the plants because I know some of those folks are temp workers or progression employees… and they aren’t getting as much money as we (seniority) are, it’s harder for them. Last time we had a strike we were out for two days, everyone can survive two days, but this is over a month now and these younger people are hurting.”

As the time neared to head out toward another picket line, I asked Beasley one last question: “You glad you’re staying on strike a bit longer?”

“I’ll stay out as long as it takes. GM has the resources, they’ve had them for years, and it’s time for the middle class to stand up and say enough is enough, it’s not just for us, what we’re doing is not just for GM workers, it’s for the whole working class,” she said, tenacity dripping off every word.

“I hope we’re showing southern car company workers, who keep voting down a union, why they need one, why all workers need a union—at the end of the day, all they can expect are better working conditions, better pay, and a voice on the job.”


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.