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GM's striking union workers face big decision on ratification

Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

It rained all day Monday in Romulus, Michigan. 

At GM's Romulus Powertrain plant, strikers had a fire going in a big barrel where they could warm their hands.  

Steven Boyle walked the picket line undeterred, water streaming off his orange poncho. 

"My grandfather was a sit-down striker," says Boyle. "If he was capable of locking himself inside a building for 45 days, not knowing the next time he was going to get a meal...well, bring on -20 degrees, and I'd still be out here. It wouldn't make a difference to me."

Some smaller plants had voted that day to approve a tentative four-year contract with General Motors, by a big margin.

That had Kenny Bowles predicting ratification, albeit by a narrow margin.

"We're gonna hang in there, but it's a wrap,” he says.“I think it's going to go through. It's not what everybody wanted, but it's not that bad."

But this was before the vote at GM's Spring Hill, Tennessee plant on Tuesday, which has a much larger workforce.

"I think the vote at Spring Hill – a narrow rejection of the agreement – is a cause of concern for things to come," says Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "This is a local union that received considerable investment in the new agreement – a billion dollars for new SUVs – but clearly what was upsetting to many members is the fact that Lordstown will remain closed."

Lordstown being one of five facilities that GM is closing or has already closed. Most of the Lordstown Assembly workers are now at plants in Flint, Fort Wayne, Indiana, or Arlington, Texas.

The tentative deal shuts the door on any hope of them moving back home to Ohio. And Shaiken says the closure sent a worrisome message to a lot of other union members.

"And that's that Lordstown is a preview of what could happen to other plants."

But there are still some compelling reasons why GM's striking workers might vote to ratify. 

The most basic is the need to get back to work and a regular paycheck. The tentative deal also provides new benefits for GM's temporary workers and others.

Union officials are visiting each GM facility to hold rollout meetings to explain the contract.

Kristin Dziczek is an analyst with the Center for Automotive Research. She says the presentations aren't always well received. 

"Yeah, it can get rowdy," she says, "and has gotten rowdy. Police were called to the local in Spring Hill because of some of the protestors were disrupting the proceedings."

In-person protesting isn't the only peer pressure on workers as they try to make up their minds. 

Paul Eisenstein is editor of TheDetroitBureau.com. He's covered every contract ratification since 1979. He says social media is a new factor in these ratification votes, with lots of "vote no!" posts all over Facebook.

“And we know that naysayers tend to be more outspoken online than they may be in person,” he says. “It's a great place to get a very strong opinion out to a broad audience.”

Nicole Henning works at GM's plant in Lansing where voting won't wrap up until Friday. The union will make a final tally late Friday.

She says there is really no way at this point to make any predictions.

"Different parts of the contract are appealing to different people,” says Henning. “So it's kind of hard to get a sense of how everybody feels about it."

A no vote would mean even more financial hardships for workers and big financial costs for GM.

And it could potentially send union negotiators back to the table with a nearly impossible demand that GM reopen the orphaned Lordstown Assembly plant.  

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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