MONDAY, Sept. 16 — It’s in their blood. Strikers Harley Hood and Adriana Leven both come from third-generation UAW families, and both were ready for the nationwide job walkoff, hoping to draw a line in the sand with General Motors.
“I want to make this strike count for something. We need to go big or go home,” said Leven, 26, who works on the paint line at the Grand River Assembly plant, which turns out the Chevy Camaro and the Cadillac CT5. “I come from a huge General Motors family.”
“We don’t want to end up a ghost town,” the 49-year-old Hood said, talking about Lansing, which he worries could suffer the same fate as other GM towns as the once-giant automaker continues to shrink its American footprint. In addition to the Grand River plant, the Lansing area has two stamping plants and the Delta Township assembly, which produces the Chevy Traverse and the Buick Enclave crossovers.
The UAW voted to strike at the end of its contract over the weekend. It’s the first nationwide walkoff since 2007, a strike that lasted just days. But this year, the union appears much more restive and dug-in with its demands, which include relying on fewer temporary workers, blocking the cut in healthcare benefits, and guaranteeing more investments in American factories, including opening idled plants.
After decades of sliding toward irrelevance, the American labor movement has grown increasingly activist and visible in recent years, with massive strikes from teachers, grocery store workers, and hotel workers, along with demonstrations at Wal-Mart and fast-food chains that have resisted unionization and a living wage.
Now the United Auto Workers are hoping to generate a similar sympathetic public reception with a strike of their own. The UAW once set the agenda for middle-class laborers, but now has about one-tenth the number of active workers as it did 50 years ago.
Chief among the complaints is GM’s decision to close five U.S. and Canadian plants, even as it brought back the Chevy Blazer and decided to build it in Mexico. GM has also been importing the Buick Envision from a low-wage Chinese plant.
“The taxpayers helped the company through the bankruptcy,” said Randy Freeman, president of the Local 652. “They’ve taken one of the premier cars, the Blazer, and decided to build it in Mexico. If that’s not sticking you in the eye, what is it?”
GM now employers fewer hourly workers — about 49,000 — than either Ford or Chrysler, a remarkable turnabout for the once dominant U.S. employer.
The UAW has complained that GM is using a growing number of temporary workers who may work for years before being hired full time with regular pay and benefits. The automaker has also maintained a tiered wage structure depending on when an employee started and has tried to trim healthcare benefits.
“The two-tier system is unfair, and it’s set up to divide the workers,” said Leven, who hired in just four years ago and so makes considerably less than her older peers.
Hood said temporary workers should be temporary — and hire into the plant full time after 90 days, and not be misused.
The energy and enthusiasm for the strike was palpable on the first big day Monday, but time will tell if that energy can carry through long enough to force GM to offer a better deal. Strikers get just $250 a week from their union, and thousands of other workers who do business with GM will be laid off until the plants reopen. Leven said she saved her money knowing that the strike was coming.
The UAW has been dogged by corruption and FBI investigations into its upper ranks, but Freeman said it would be unfair to blemish the men and women in the entire union because of a few bad actors.
“They need to clean up the bad characters,” Freeman said. “You’ve got a lot of hard-working people out there every day.”