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More than 49,000 GM plant workers are on strike nationwide

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

More than 49,000 General Motors plant workers are walked off the job starting just before midnight on Sunday. That's after the union failed to reach a deal on a new four-year contract with GM.

On Sunday morning, in a preview of a much bigger planned strike, a maintenance workers union in Flint also represented by the UAW went on the picket line.

“Solidarity forever!” the workers shouted.

This scene is expected to be replicated at all of GM's manufacturing plants around the country.

At Sunday's press conference announcing the strike against GM, UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said the union and the automaker are far apart on the issues.

Those include wages and profit sharing, job security, health care benefits, and a path to permanent jobs for GM's temporary workers.

“We do not take this lightly. This is our last resort. It represents great sacrifice and great courage on the part of our members, all of us,” said Dittes.

Dittes then left the press conference, leaving UAW communications director Brian Rothenberg to field questions about why the union's president, Gary Jones, was not present.

Jones' house was raided by the FBI on August 28th in a widening corruption investigation.

“Uh, Mr. Jones has a union to run,” said Rothenberg.

Rothenberg said union members are solely focused on their contract. 

The FBI probe has so far resulted in five UAW officials admitting to taking bribes or kickbacks or misusing union funds.

But Rothenberg said members won't be distracted by the investigation.

Michelle Krebs, an analyst with Autotrader, questioned that assertion.

“I do not think that's true, and I think that the UAW leadership knows that,” she said.

She said GM's decision last year to close four plants drew a line in the sand for the union.

That, plus the scandal, means the union may have had little choice but to call a strike.

“The rank and file may not totally trust UAW leadership to negotiate a contract that's in their best interest,” said Krebs.

Union members are getting $250 a week in strike pay, up from $200. But it is still a lot less than their usual paychecks. 

GM will lose money, too, during the strike.

“If it's not a long strike, and I wouldn't expect that it would be, it shouldn’t be damaging because General Motors can always make up that production that it’s lost, and it’s been stockpiling vehicles,” said Krebs.

For its part, General Motors said it is disappointed by the union's decision to strike. 

The automaker said it offered the union a fair contract that includes wage and profit sharing increases, an $8,000 contract ratification bonus for workers, as well as unspecified "solutions"  for the closed plants.

Meanwhile, the UAW has agreed to extend its contracts at Ford Motor Company and Fiat Chrysler. Workers there will continue reporting for work. The union plans to use whatever deal members eventually approve with GM as the pattern for both of the other automakers.

Steve Carmody contributed reporting to this story.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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