The Baffler
Kim Kelly,  September 18

Striking a Blow

At GM, a wave of labor action spills over into the manufacturing sector

The Baffler
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General Motors workers have put up with a lot over the past decade; the massive United Auto Workers (UAW) strike that kicked off late Sunday night has been a long time coming. The root cause of this week’s action predates the sweeping wave of labor actions of 2018—it really stretches back to 2007, when, following a 73,000-strong two-day strike, GM workers swallowed a number of brutal concessions on wages and other important issues and agreed to head back to the factory floor to ensure the survival of the company. A year later, the economy had crashed, and General Motors was free-falling into bankruptcy. The government bailed them out to the tune of about $50 billion, and yet layoffs have remained a regular occurrence since. In 2009, GM announced that 10,000 workers would lose their jobs; 2016 saw the company cut 2,000 workers in Michigan and Ohio. In 2018, despite banking $8.1 billion globally, GM announced plans to close down five U.S. facilities—including the iconic Lordstown plant in Canton, Ohio—and cut some 14,000 jobs by 2020.

GM is doing what bosses always do—trying to keep as much of the good stuff for themselves as they can and avoid giving workers what they actually deserve.

This year’s UAW contract negotiations are critical to the future of U.S. manufacturing. Not only will the result affect around 158,000 workers, but it will also affect GM’s investment plans (as well as those of Ford and Fiat Chrysler) for the next several years. On Sunday, September 15, the negotiations between the UAW and GM, which has raked in hundreds of billions in revenue since the last contract was signed in 2015, broke down over disputes about wages, job security, health care, plant closures, and the status of temporary workers. Regional UAW leaders in Detroit held a unanimous vote that morning to authorize a strike—the union’s first since 2007—and called out almost 50,000 workers across the South and Midwest.

One minute before midnight, as their previous contract officially expired, workers streamed out of the factories and onto the picket lines. For the first time since the Great Recession, the United Auto Workers were out on strike.

Formal contract negotiations resumed Monday morning, and now many rank-and-file workers are locked into an unenviable three-way fight between their own interests, union leadership, and GM management. Union officials have allegedly kept members in the dark about contract negotiations and strike preparations, and on top of that lack of transparency, the UAW top brass hasn’t exactly endeared itself to its membership lately: six UAW officials have been recently charged with or convicted for corruption, and union president Gary Jones and former president Dennis Williams may be next.

For its part, GM is doing what bosses always do—trying to keep as much of the good stuff for themselves as they can and avoid giving workers what they actually deserve. The current dispute is already showing signs of turning into a long battle; two days into the strike, GM announced they’d be terminating health care coverage for striking workers (UAW will be offering assistance in the interim). On top of all that, the big wet president of the United States keeps sticking his nose in. Since the beginning of his 2016 campaign, Trump, who fancies himself a hero of the (white) working man, has nurtured an obsession with GM. He seized upon the company as a show pony to be periodically trotted out, crowed over, then tossed aside when it didn’t immediately prance to his liking; since then, he has showered it with unctuous platitudes when the company’s actions fit into his plans and lashed it with petty vitriol when they didn’t.

Trump’s campaign promise to auto workers in Michigan—“If I’m elected, you won’t lose one plant, you’ll have plants coming into this country, you’re going to have jobs again, you won’t lose one plant, I promise you that”—has proven to be as hollow as everything else that’s ever dribbled out of his noxious pout. After GM profited from Trump’s tax-cuts-for-the-rich scheme, instead of passing along the windfall to workers in the United States, they moved production of the Chevy Blazer to Mexico. The terminally thin-skinned Trump has been visibly frustrated by this turn of events, and is deeply displeased about the current strike, which he seems to view as a personal slight. For their part, many GM workers are desperately hoping that he’ll stay the hell out of it. “He didn’t support us when we went bankrupt,” Adriane Hall, a UAW member in Flint, Michigan told CNBC. “He didn’t support us then, why should he say anything now?”

The fact that almost 50,000 GM workers are out on strike is notable not only because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen an auto industry strike on this scale. More than that, it signals a potential sea change in the ongoing series of strike actions that was jump-started by educators in West Virginia in 2018 and has grown into a mighty wave. In the past two years, thousands upon thousands of teachers, hotel workers, fast food workers, sex workers, grad students, grocery store workers, and ride-hail drivers across the United States have gone on strike to fight for basic gains like better working conditions, higher wages, and decent health care. High school students have borrowed the language of labor to launch school strikes for gun control, and a large coalition of activists is currently planning a “climate strike”; tech workers have staged walkouts to protest workplace cultures of sexual harassment, and hundreds of Wayfair workers walked out to protest their employers’ collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This January, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson helped bring the government shutdown to an end with the very mention of a general strike. Even the Chicago Symphony hit the picket line.

Trump, the most anti-union president in recent history, rams through destructive labor policies while burnishing his non-existing credibility by staging simpering photo ops with building trade workers.

The people who led this wave’s earlier incarnations are predominantly women and people of color working in the service industry, or those who perform traditionally feminized labor. So it is significant that this strike wave is now spilling into the manufacturing sector, which has long been a union stronghold but is also saddled with the stereotypical demographic expectations of clueless coastal grifters who expect to be greeted by a sea of conservative white men when they walk onto factory floors in the industrial heartland. However, even in more traditional industries like manufacturing, the actual makeup of the American working class does not reflect this fiction anymore, as women already make up 51 percent of the sector and people of color are on track to become its new majority. A racist dinosaur like Trump doesn’t know how to navigate the brave new world in which the Rust Belt votes he counted on and pandered to in 2016 have withered thanks to his idiotic trade war and his bumbling of fuel economy standards and tariffs, which is bruising the already shaky automotive industry.

If a trend of strike actions in the manufacturing sector continues into the election cycle proper, it holds the potential to deal a body blow to Trump, the most anti-union president in recent history, who rams through destructive labor policies while burnishing his non-existing credibility by staging simpering photo ops with building trade workers. That shtick wasn’t built to last, and if more militant labor action is on the horizon, a key constituency he once regarded, however inaccurately, as his own just might slip through his greasy fingers. The GM strike is a sign of collective worker power and the continuing revitalization of the labor movement. But it can also be seen as a rebuke of Trump—who broke so many promises to save these jobs and uplift these workers—and a rebuke of the broken capitalist system that keeps kicking them when they’re already down.

Now, as ever, the workers at GM are doing a lot of heavy lifting—and the rest of the labor movement needs to make damn sure we’ve got their backs.

Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and labor organizer whose writing on labor, radical politics, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, The New Republic, Teen Vogue, Pacific Standard, and many others. She is a proud member of and councilperson for the Writers Guild of America, East. 

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