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Leticia Wills staked out her ground up the road from the shuttered GM Delta Township Assembly with her more seasoned fellow auto workers as a thunderstorm approached.
The other auto workers with her from Local 602 are striking for the third week despite the good health benefits, good retirement and good pay of more than $30 an hour that General Motors and the United Auto Workers are known for.
“That’s what I’m out here fighting for,” Wills said. “We have a great union and great people working hard to give us things like seniority.”
Wills has none of that. Like many of the people who have come to work for General Motors in the past few years, she’s considered a “temporary worker” despite hiring on in 2016. She only makes half of what the other workers earn. Her seniority will probably not transfer if she ever does get hired on permanently. She pays more for lower-quality health insurance. She is not eligible for a profit-sharing bonus. She gets no retirement benefits and no paid time off. She drives a 10-year-old Lincoln that she bought used.
“I work next to her,” said Jacquline Brent, who first hired into GM at the Pontiac iron foundry in 1985. “Why should she not share in the profit and healthcare? We can’t do it without them. It should never have happened. Now that GM is profitable, we want them to share in the profit.”
The UAW has a long litany of grievances against General Motors, the most profitable of Detroit’s Big Three automakers. They want to put off cuts to healthcare. They want to restore cost-of-living increases. They want to keep plants in Ohio and Michigan open, and they want the company to stop outsourcing so much work to Mexico and China.
But perhaps most of all, the union wants GM to stop driving a wedge through its membership with the overuse of temporary workers, who do the same grueling, repetitive work for years without earning the spot in the middle class their “legacy workers” enjoy.
“We’re about equality. We’re looking for equal pay for everybody,” said Bill Reed, the president of Local 602, who was quick to point out that picketers get $250 a week for strike pay, regardless of their hourly wage. “It’s hard on morale.”
“They are GM’s best employees. They can’t take any time off. They can fire them at any time,“ Reed added.
The union local’s vice president, Steve Delaney, said Delta Assembly’s 100 temporary workers like Wills were exactly the kind of people they want to work alongside. “They’ve proven they can do the job above and beyond.”
The local leaders said UAW leadership has been tight-lipped about negotiations with GM. Some reports show them close to a deal, while others report the two sides far apart, and digging in their heels.
Deals that appear to be generous, such as reopening the plant in Lordstown, Ohio, to manufacture batteries — perhaps for a new electric truck line at Hamtramck — turn out sinister in the details, such as an insulting condition that the UAW accept wages of just $15 to $18 at the reopened Lordstown plant — roughly comparable to new hires at Costco — or the wages that GM’s temps toil for.
And GM has shown no sign of budging on temporary workers. In fact, it wants to hire a greater share of them, since they can be hired and fired with little notice, unlike the UAW’s veteran workers. To GM, the temporary workers are not a bug but a feature.
Temp workers have become increasingly common across the manufacturing sector, rising from 2.3 percent of the workforce in 1989 to 11 percent in 2015, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, which is friendly to labor interests. Across the sector, temp workers make $13 compared to $18 for permanent employees, as for 2016.
The increased use of temps has eroded the premium that manufacturing workers get overall compared to other similarly skilled jobs by 4 percent. GM uses a higher percentage than Ford or Chrysler but less than nonunion automakers like Toyota and Nissan.
“It’s a corporate strategy to lower costs, meaning paying workers less and providing less security to workers,” said economist Larry Mishel, who authored the study on temporary workers. He said if the UAW can find success limiting temps and improving their compensation, it could help them win over auto workers in Southern factories where they’ve been voted out.
“I think that the state of our country is that workers have been taking it on the chin for years,” Mishel said. “If people can see that this can provide concrete improvements for their lives, they’ll go there.”
Back at the picket lines, the auto workers talked about their long roots at GM, many going back to the days of Oldsmobile and beyond. “My grandmother lied about her age to get into Fisher Body,” said Karen Johnson, referencing the old coachbuilding division of General Motors.
“I put my son through college. These temps are not going to be able to do that,” said Johnson, who was a single mother. “It was a life-changing experience to be able to put my son through Ferris State, and now he’s teaching in Laingsburg.”
Brent reluctantly admitted she converted her sweat into a baser goal — three Cadillacs, one of which she took off the line. “GM has provided a good way of life,” she said. “You have to come get it, it’s not free.”
Wills had worked at the U.S. Postal Service — another beleaguered, unionized foundation of the black middle class — but lost her job and moved in with her grandmother. She said she never expected to work for the company that employed her grandfather. “My father has the Enclave. I’m always reminding him — I made that,” Wills said.
When not at work, Wills helps her grandmother as she struggles with dementia. Now, as the strike bears down, Wills can lean on that family relationship herself. “Fortunately, I don’t have any kids. I’m just praying that we’ll get a good contract here, and we get back to work building cars for GM.”