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Temporary worker issue could prolong UAW strike against GM

Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

On day two of the United Auto Worker's national strike against General Motors, I caught up with UAW member Jessie Kelly, right after her four-hour shift on the picket line at GM's Warren Tech Center. 

Kelly, a 29-year-old single mom of one, is in a skilled trades apprentice program at GM. It's a long way from her early days with the automaker, when she was a temp. 

She calls it one of the worst experiences of her life.

"They have a way of pitting you against a permanent employee where you feel like, if you go the extra mile, if you work a little bit more than your union brother or sister that will give you an opportunity to eventually get hired in full time and that's not the case," says Kelly.

Kelly says the conditions for temp workers at GM are nothing short of abusive. 

Temporary workers get three unpaid days a year off — period. Take a fourth day off, for illness, or a funeral — and boom, she says, you're fired. 

"I've seen temporary employees come to work and throw up in garbage cans because they were too afraid to go home," says Kelly.

So even though she's in a better position at GM now — she says she'll vote no on any contract that fails to offer temporary workers a path to permanent jobs. 

And if the contract even touches the holy grail of health insurance — Kelly says that won't fly, either.

Currently, union members pay about four percent of the cost of their health insurance. But she has zero sympathy for the argument that GM needs workers to pay more.

Not when the automaker made more than $35 billion over the last four years.

"You shuffle us into a room and you tell us about record breaking profits," Kelly says of GM leaders, "and our CEO is making over $20 million for her job, and then you say, 'but we need a concession from you again."

Kelly says workers made more than enough concessions in 2009, when GM was in bankruptcy. 

Kelly is fired up, but she knows living off $250 a week strike pay is going to be really tough.

Harley Shaikin is a labor expert at the University of California-Berkley. He's seen strikes play out before.

"I think without question, there's a moment of euphoria when workers walk out.  They're showing their strength, they're challenging the company on something they think is critical," he says.

But Shaikin says that euphoria won't last long. Union members will do their own cost-benefit analysis, he says, of any contract that could end a costly strike.

Shaikin also thinks GM will have a hard time making a case that it must cut health insurance costs.

While the automaker does spend a very large sum — a billion dollars a year — on health insurance for its blue collar workers.

"Over the last four years, GM spent $25 billion in stock buybacks and in dividends to shareholders," says Shaikin, yet, few ask whether those expenditures make GM less competitive.

It appears that messing with health insurance is a go-to-war issue for the UAW. 

Kristin Dziczek is with the Center for Automotive Research. She thinks it's unlikely GM will press very hard on the issue of health insurance.

But relying on temporary workers is a good way for GM to manage its labor costs in a downturn.

Dziczek says nobody has a crystal ball to ask that question, how long will this strike last?

"None of us are in that [negotiating] room," she says. "We don't know how far apart they really are, and we don't know what are the must-haves versus the nice-to-haves in each side's demands."

So, for Kelly, and more than 49,000 other GM workers, it's a new routine — go to the union hall — check the picket line schedule, and walk on that picket line, rain or shine.  

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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