50,000 Union Members Go on Strike at GM

This morning, September 16, nearly 50,000 employees of General Motors went on strike at factories across the country, standing in picket lines and holding signs, according to a report from the New York Times. The strike was authorized by regional leaders of the United Automobile Workers union and was the union’s first walkout since 2007. The demands of the union for their employer echo many of the complaints expressed by working people in modern-day America: strikers want higher pay, idle plants to reopen, and jobs to be created. GM, on the other hand, wants to lower the amount of money they pay for their employees’ health care and increase employee productivity. This is the largest strike of any union on any business since 2007, which is the last time the UAW went on strike.

The UAW has the support of the Teamsters union, which is comprised of truckers, many of whom are responsible for transporting vehicles from GM’s plants to dealerships. The Teamsters union, standing in solidarity with the UAW, will not cross UAW picket lines, effectively joining them in their strike by refusing to work at GM plants where strikes are ongoing. While the UAW and GM negotiate an end to the strike, GM’s stock prices have fallen precipitously, as investors worry about the company’s financial future. While GM has enough cash, borrowing power, and inventory to sell to keep the company financially afloat for a few weeks, a strike lasting beyond that period of time could have long-lasting devastating consequences, reducing the company to junk bond status.

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Strikers complain that while GM has seen increases in profit over the past several years, their wages have not gone up in response. Although the UAW includes members from Ford and Chrysler, only GM employees went on strike because GM is the only auto manufacturer that is closing American plants. Though GM is the primary target of the UAW, the union is negotiating for terms that would benefit workers across the industry. The strike was triggered by the expiration of labor contracts over the weekend; as Ford and Chrysler were not the target of the strike, their contracts were temporarily extended. Though it’s bad for business, auto manufacturers prefer to be the first target of strikes rather than the second or third targets, as they can work to meet bargaining objectives more directly with greater flexibility, according to CNN.

The union feels particularly aggrieved because it claims that it helped save GM during the Great Recession.

Though they will not receive regular pay from GM while they are striking, workers will receive $250 per week from the union’s emergency strike fund. For these employees, the potential for higher wages upon the strike’s conclusion makes the temporary loss of income worth going on strike. One of the union’s major complaints is GM’s reliance on temporary workers, who receive fewer benefits and often don’t have a clear path to permanent employment. Additionally, the union wants a better profit sharing plan from GM and lump sum payments in addition to higher hourly wages. The union argues that while these concessions may hurt GM’s bottom line in the short term, paying employees higher wages would boost the economy overall and lead to higher productivity and quality of work.

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The union feels particularly aggrieved because it claims that it helped save GM during the Great Recession. After economic problems led sales to plunge, GM and Chrysler went into bankruptcy, being kept alive by federal bailout money. During this time, the union agreed to several concessions for GM, including reduced pay and fewer benefits for new hires, in an effort to keep the business afloat. Analysts, however, claimed that this move on behalf of the unions was made out of necessity, as bankruptcy judges have the power to break union contracts, giving employers in bankruptcy more leverage.

Democratic candidates for president have weighed in on the strike, generally offering support for the workers and unions generally. Joe Biden’s campaign tweeted that he stands with UAW, adding that jobs are about dignity and respect in addition to a paycheck. Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have also expressed their support of the strike via Twitter. The strike also comes amidst legal problems for many of the union’s leaders, who have been accused of appropriating union funds for extravagant personal purchases, including a Ferrari, and may serve to draw attention away from this controversy.