Stakes Are Higher, GM Strikers Say

By Vickie Elmer and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

FLINT, Mich., Sept 24 -- Thousands of workers streamed out into the summer heat here, in this city that has weathered many GM strikes, heading first to union halls and then, armed with picket signs, back to plant gates after the autoworkers union called a national strike.

"I didn't think that GM would push us this far," said Walt Duvernois, president of United Auto Workers Local 659. He expects up to 2,800 mostly skilled-trades members who work at four locations around Flint to sign up for strike shifts and strike pay starting Tuesday.

"Our people are strong-willed," he said. But he acknowledged that with GM's global operations and its strong foreign competitors, the situation is far different now than it was in 1998, when workers went on strike at two GM plants here, halting parts shipments to GM factories nationwide and effectively shutting down the automaker.

At a GM Service and Parts Center near the city, some strikers said people walking by had given them bottled water and packages of cookies. "Just people. I don't know them," said one striker wearing a bright yellow shirt and sunglasses. He declined to give his name, saying union officials will speak for the workers. "There's a lot of support."

Drivers honked their horns as they passed by small groups of UAW members carrying picket signs, and family members tagged along with fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters as they streamed into the union halls to find out what was coming next.

But at Local 598, where 3,200 members were suddenly on strike, some seemed perplexed about what to do given that the negotiations were continuing. They asked questions at the union hall. Some signed up for a voluntary picket shift. "It's all up in the air," a union officer said.

Many say they realize the risks but have no choice. "We're fighting for our lives," said Bob Wise, 63, who inspects welds at GM's truck plant here. He said he has been on strike 10 to 15 times in his 42 years at GM.

"Of all the strikes I've been on, this one means the most," he said, because he thinks GM is trying to take too much away from workers and retirees.

"We need to stick together and kick their butts," he said, but then quickly caught himself. "Not kick their butts. Make them realize we're human."

At the Union Station, a beer and convenience store across the street from three large GM factories, the shop was quiet because most of its customers were on strike. "They have to live on $200 a week" now, said owner Mike Jabero, referring to the strike pay.

"I make my living off workers, and workers make their living off General Motors. So it's a circle," said Jabero, who remembers when there were three shifts and 10,000 workers at the truck and metal assembly plants across the street. Until Monday, there were two shifts and about 3,500 workers.

At GM's Cadillac plant in Hamtramck, just north of downtown Detroit, Yvette Kelly said she was on her lunch break when the strike call was given.

"We were raring to go," said Kelly, 36, a 10-year plant veteran. "A lot of them, like myself, were eager to come out here and pick up a picket sign. Let them know we mean business."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company