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Solidarity in age of tiered wages and temp workers: "Everyone has to be taken care of"

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Joshua Averill stands along the picket line at the GM Components Holdings factory in Wyoming, Mich.

At the union hall for UAW Local 167 in Wyoming, just south of Grand Rapids, it’s nearly lunchtime for the workers walking the picket lines

“We’re having regular hot dogs and chili dogs,” says Jennie Chatman, who retired out of this local more than a decade ago. She’s one of a number of retirees who’ve been showing up lately, volunteering to support the current workers on strike.She says she went through her own strike, decades ago, with another union. Most of the workers coming in for lunch have never seen a strike like this one. 

“They’re learning,” she says, “like I did back in the day.” 

As the preparations continue inside the hall, I head outside with the president of this local, Willie Holmes. 

He’s had nearly 14 years at GM. He’s never seen a strike like this one either. But he comes from a union family. His mom worked out of the factory here. So he gets it.

"I had to sit them down and explain it to them"

A lot of the more senior workers get it, he says.

“It’s the younger workers that we’ve hired that are the, you know, new-hires and the temps that don’t get it,” Holmes says. “They don’t understand at all. At all. They were all talking about crossing the picket line. And I was like, ‘Don’t you dare cross that line.’ And I had to sit them down and explain it to them.”

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Willie Holmes, President of UAW Local 167, talking to workers on the picket line.

After more than a week out, he says a lot of workers are coming around. They are getting it.

But Holmes says the workers here also haven’t missed a paycheck yet. Their first will be this Friday.  And the reality of having to live off of the $250 per week in strike pay is starting to settle in.

Some workers are in a better position than others.

“Financially, obviously it’s going to be a struggle,” says Lisa Czeher, who I met walking along the picket line. “We’ve been warned of this potential for quite a few months now. Our union made it clear that this was a strong possibility, and to start saving some money.

Czeher says she’s worked at the Wyoming plant for 13 years. She carries a sign urging protection for temporary workers

She says the concessions made by the UAW in the last two contracts, when GM was struggling, have created new realities for workers. The tiered wage structure, and temporary status of some workers have a big effect now that workers are on strike. 

“As a union you’re saying that we’re all one, we’re all one,” Czeher says. “You created a division when you did that. And, unintentionally, or intentionally, that’s what occurred.”

Getting rid of the temp worker system and tiered wage structure — where some newer workers get paid less for doing the same work as senior workers — is a big part of why rank and file members like Czeher say they’re on strike. 

It’s a big part because many of these workers remember being temps. 

“I did it for nine months,” says Joshua Averill, who I met back in the union hall. “That was the longest nine months I’ve ever had in my life. Because you never know. You could show up to work tomorrow, and ‘Well, we don’t need you anymore, have a nice day.’” 

Averill told me even though he’s not a temp anymore, the strike isn’t exactly going to be easy on him. It isn’t for any of the workers here.

Part of the reason is that this plant in Wyoming, it’s actually not a normal GM plant. It’s part of a subsidiary called General Motors Components Holdings. And the workers here are treated differently. Almost all of them are on a lower wage tier than at the bigger assembly plants. 

"It's breaking me. I mean, quite literally, I'm broke," says Joshua Averill. "But I wouldn't change it."

That makes a big difference as the strike goes on.

“It’s breaking me. I mean, quite literally, I’m broke,” says Averill. “But I wouldn’t change it.” 

“How long can you hold out?” I ask him.

“I’ll hold out as long as I have to.”

And the union is organizing to support workers so they can. With lunches. Donations. Soon, Willie Holmes, the president of this local, says they may open a food pantry inside the union hall.

“I don’t care if you’ve got two days, or twenty years,” Holmes says. “Everyone has to be taken care of.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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