GM Strike – An Important Struggle Long in the Making

Fiat Chrysler workers join GM strikers at shuttered Warren Transmission plant in suburban Detroit. wsws.com

by Al Simpson

September 26, 2019

Since the bankruptcy of General Motors (GM) in 2009, the United Auto Workers (UAW) misleaders allowed GM to reduce wages, health benefits and job security. GM retirees have had to endure pension cuts and healthcare reductions. The reduction in wages was mostly accomplished through a tiered pay system.

In the tiered wage system, workers hired before 2007 make about $31 an hour, and can retire with a lifelong pension. Those hired on or after 2007, currently more than a third of the work force, start at about $17 an hour and can work their way up to about $29 an hour over eight years. They also have to rely on 401(k) retirement accounts instead of defined pensions. In addition, GM has about seven percent temporary part-time workers (TPT), who earn about $15 an hour and do not have vision or dental benefits.[i] The strike is being supported by virtually all employees, irrespective of race. ethnicity or wage level.

The pay for the TPT workers is no better than the minimum wage of  $15 an hour for fast food workers in New York City – for industrial labor! They do pretty much the same work as full time-time workers but are paid a whole lot less. Plus, they are not temporary in any sense, since there are TPT workers who have not been rolled over to full time after working 5 years or more. If all this isn’t enough, they have unpredictable schedules, cannot build seniority, and are subject to arbitrary discipline and firings without recourse to the grievance procedure, despite paying union dues. They can get only three days off per year before facing automatic dismissal. So, it’s just a slave labor system. It’s things like this that show why capitalism must be overthrown by the working class!

Overall, all the workers have taken a terrible financial hit since GM’s bankruptcy. After September 2010, average wages in the automobile industry declined two percent while consumer prices rose 18 percent.[ii] Of course, the bribed docility of the UAW contributed to this debacle. See chart below.

An important demand would be to scrap the tiered system entirely. All workers, including TPTs, should become full-time workers at the highest pay and benefit scale. All workers should receive defined pension plans; not 401(k)s. The union is only demanding that TPTs get a pathway to permanent positions and compensation closer to that of their permanent counterparts.

U.S. Nominal & Real (Inflation-Adjusted) Hourly Wages Have Fallen for Production & Non-Supervisory Workers in Motor Vehicle Manufacturing (January 1990 – July 2018, $1990)U.S. Nominal & Real (Inflation-Adjusted) Hourly Wages Have Fallen for Production & Non-Supervisory Workers in Motor Vehicle Manufacturing (January 1990 – July 2018, $1990)

Notice that real wages have gone down by 16 percent. There should be a 40 percent increase in pay to begin recovering decades of wages lost due to illegitimate concessions made by the corrupt UAW officials and the corporations that bribed them. The UAW should have never agreed to the tiered employee wage and benefit system nor allowing GM to have temporary workers to super-exploit.

Strike is Occurring in a Period of Weakness

In recent years, conservative politicians enacted Right to Work (for less) laws in 23 states (see https://multiracialunity.org/2018/04/12/right-to-work-another-nail-in-the-coffin-of-organized-labor/), weakening unions. Also, not helpful, is the unions’ sellout posture of trying to protect the employer rather than the workers whom they supposedly represent. But historically the greatest increase in unionization took place despite all kinds of laws prohibiting or limiting unionization. Some of the largest and most militant teachers strikes that have taken place in recent years took place in conservative Right to Work states! Overall union membership has fallen precipitously (red line) since 1981 and is now only 10.7 percent (see graph below). Notice how, at almost the very same time, the income of the top one percent of earners (blue line) has risen enormously.

Job and income security will be great importance to the auto workers this time around because: 1) the next four years will likely include a downturn in the automotive industry, and 2) UAW-GM members are well aware of GM’s November 2018 announcement that it was closing or substantially reducing operations at four U.S. manufacturing plants – Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, Lordstown Assembly, Baltimore Operations, and Warren Transmission – despite having a “Plant Closing and Sale Moratorium” letter in the current UAW-GM contract. GM’s plant actions took many by surprise because U.S. auto sales were at a very healthy 17.2 million units in 2018.[iv] An important demand would be to reopen all the closed plants and rehire all laid-off and victimized workers. Stop all plant closings and layoffs!

Start of the GM Strike

The UAW struck General Motors at 12:00 midnight on Sunday, September 15. GM made $35 billion in North America over the last three years[v], while closing plants in the United States! It wants to expand its use of temporary part time (TPT) workers, they want to increase the deduction for health care to 15 percent and will give each worker a $8000 signing bonus –  that amounts to just a dollar an hour over the life of the contract. In addition, they want to hire contract workers for various projects to undercut the concept of industrial unionism. There is virtually no mention of any raises for the auto workers or the elimination of hated tiered wage system.

What about the UAW negotiators?  Vance Pearson, who is facing criminal charges that he conspired to steal workers dues money, is participating in the “negotiations” with GM. Pearson is a close associate of UAW President Gary Jones. Jones has been implicated in embezzling more than $1 million in workers’ money. The rapid-fire succession of FBI raids, arrests and indictments by the Justice Department has been used to tighten the screws on the UAW, which could face government receivership and long prison sentences for its top executives if they fail to impose management’s dictates. The government has no right to stick its nose into the union’s business. The workers can take proper care of their institutions; they don’t need the so-called “help” of the bosses’ cops.

Workers should start building local strike committees to ensure the proper running of the strike. Given the very real possibility of a sellout contract being shoved down the workers’ throats, such strike committees can set things straight and conduct the strike in the workers’ interests. After the strike, the strike committees could become rank and file union committees that will continue their work in rebuilding the union.

The UAW is paying the workers only $250 a week, provided that the strike lasts longer than one week. The first payment will be made 15 days after the beginning of the strike. The UAW strike fund currently has $760 million in it, so the payments could be much larger than just $250 per week! This is all the more reason to organize the local strike committees so that they can take control of the UAW away from the union misleaders. The committees could then take control of the union’s finances and run the union in a responsible fashion.

This is now the longest auto strike in 50 years.

News Items

In a major reversal, General Motors has told the UAW that it will continue to pay for health coverage of striking workers, which it had terminated. The union was being forced to fund health benefits through its strike fund. GM said Thursday, September26, that it “has chosen to work with our providers to keep all benefits fully in place for striking hourly employees, so they have no disruption to their medical care, including vision, prescription and dental coverage.”[vi]

At least five strikers have been arrested in Springhill, TN, when they tried to stop a scab truck from transporting newly built vehicles.[vii] The next day, nine members of Local 1853, including the president, were arrested for blocking vehicles from entering the plant.[viii] The company alleged that union members had placed nails in the road to hamper scabs.[ix]

GM is already attempting to re-open at least some of its plants with scab labor, including the key assembly plants in Arlington, Texas and Wentzville, Missouri. At other locations the company is still moving material in and out of the plants. Pickets are already being struck on the picket line by vehicles driven by scabs. A scab trucker in Swartz Creek, near Flint, struck at least three picketers in separate incidents, according to cell phone footage picked up by local media. Fortunately, none were seriously injured, although one was taken away in an ambulance.[x]

The UAW Has a Great History

The UAW is the same union that ran the Flint, Michigan Sit-Down Strike. On December 30, 1936, General Motors workers at Fisher Body No. 1 began what has been called the most significant strike in American history. These workers were fighting for recognition of their union, the United Auto Workers, and to keep their jobs from going to scab workers. Other demands included a switch from piece work to hourly pay, a 30 hour week, ending “speed-up” production, and seniority rights.[xi] The strikers decided to occupy the plant in with a Sit-Down Strike. The strikers depended on friends, family members, and the public for support and food. During the strike there were many battles against the cops and scabs. By February 4, 1937, the strikers inside Fisher No. 1 had been living without heat or power for several weeks, but they showed great endurance and fortitude and ignored court injunctions ordering them to leave the plant. More than 4,000 National Guardsmen and 1,000 scabs and policemen surrounded Fisher No. 1 and its strikers. The strikers reduced their demands to just one: GM recognition of the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for workers. On February 11, GM gave in and the strike ended. The strikers were able to establish their union, the United Auto Workers. This was a hard fought victory, and more hard fighting had to be done to organize Ford and other firms. Sit-down strikes spread from the auto industry to other industries.[xii]

If workers want to earn a living wage and have decent benefits, they will have to fight for them every step of the way. They must not allow bosses or union misleaders to divide them by race or nationality, citizenship status, gender, or job category. In fact, true strength would lie in uniting workers in many industries and services, in many countries. After all, workers are the vast majority of people in the world and have the potential to win whatever they are well enough organized to fight for. Workers even make up the armies on which capitalists ultimately depend. Anti-union laws and so-called labor leaders who try to control workers’ militancy must be sent packing. As that is accomplished, we can even begin to consider doing away with capitalism altogether, so no one is exploited for the profit of another.


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/16/business/uaw-gm-strike.html

[ii] https://www.cargroup.org/the-issues-in-2019-uaw-fca-ford-gm-negotiations/

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/16/business/uaw-gm-strike.html

[vi] https://www.freep.com/story/money/cars/general-motors/2019/09/26/gm-strike-update-health-care/3774495002/

[vii] www.wsws.org

[viii] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/09/strike-united-auto-workers-general-motors

[ix] Ibid

[x] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/09/18/scab-s18.html

[xi] http://sloanlongway.org/flint-sit-down-strike/

[xii] Ibid

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