So as union officials met about a contract deal that, if approved, would end the five-week strike of some 46,000 United Automobile Workers members — one of the longest private sector strikes in recent years — Piroch was here with three vanfulls of other displaced workers from the Lordstown plant to voice dissent.
In the lobby of the Renaissance Center, the futuristic complex that is GM’s headquarters in downtown Detroit, Piroch and other workers shouted “No vote!” and “Invest in Lordstown!” as union executives walked by.
The tentative contract agreement addresses many of the central issues of the dispute, picketing members said. It provides some temporary employees with a path to full employment. And it reduces the eight-year “grow-in” for new employees to be brought up to full wages of about $32 an hour to about four, before abolishing it completely by 2023.
The lower starting pay of $17 was a concession made in the years after the recession.
But with the absence of provisions to reopen the plants in Michigan, Ohio and Maryland that GM shuttered in 2018, the deal is in some ways a reminder of the larger economic forces that have eroded the status of manufacturing workers in recent years — which the union, despite its numbers, is relatively powerless to address.
“I need something in Lordstown,” Piroch said. “There’s no reason there isn’t a product in Lordstown. [GM CEO] Mary Barra made $22 million with a product in Lordstown.”
Workers interviewed by The Washington Post this week said that they felt their strike was worth it, both for the compromises it helped obtain and as a show of force at a time when unions had been left for all but dead.
“We understand that we’re fighting for working class people — it’s bigger than just the UAW,” said Martin Tutwiler, 42, a GM worker in Detroit. “It’s about having a living wage. So you don’t have to work multiple jobs to pay bills.”
Union participation has been on the wane for decades, its decline paved by “right to work” laws passed by Republican state legislatures that have chipped away at unions’ strength and succeeded at demonizing them. Meanwhile, inequality continues to widen — its line charted almost perfectly with the decline in union membership.
Only about 10 percent of American workers are in labor unions — a percentage that has halved since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the number in 1983.
But there has been a surge of energy in the world of organizing, as attention has turned to former middle class strongholds in the Midwest, like Lordstown, where workers say they feel left behind.
Strikes are at their highest levels since the 1980s. And a hybrid form of activism that has expanded to include workers organizing across different workplaces has emerged as scrappy but effective way to pressure companies and local governments for change on issues like the minimum wage.
The UAW fight for a better contract with GM was in many ways a throwback to the decades when large numbers of autoworkers regularly shut down production at factories for better contracts.
It is the longest strike at GM since 1973, when a stoppage lasted 100 days. At more than 1 million work days lost — and counting — the strike is one of the largest in the private sector in the last twenty years.
And there is a sense that the contract deal — a win for workers, because it maintained provisions GM tried to trim and added improvements — could inspire other workers.
“In social movements, you see waves of working class activity as people learn from each other,” said Josh Murray, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University and the co-author of a recent book that argues that American auto companies destroyed their capacity to compete in the 1960s because of the way they sought to ward off strikes. “There’s this idea of the politics of the possible. Most working people aren’t against unions or having more money and benefits, but there’s a risk to doing those things. But as more and more of these things happen and people win, then more people get on board.”
About 25,000 teachers in Chicago went on strike this week, potentially building on momentum from the West Virginia teachers strike in 2018.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said that its public service division, which represents more than a million government and school employees, had seen more strikes in the last two or three years than anytime in the last four decades.
That group represents 7,500 school staff — aides and special education assistants, custodians and security guards — who are striking in Chicago. Henry said that members of her union, many of whom had shown up to support UAW picket lines across the Midwest, had watched the GM strike deal with issues like health care and temporary workers, that have affected school employees as well.
“The UAW GM strike and the Verizon strike the CWA did in 2016 are all indicators that working people think government officials should put more power in their hands and rebalance the power that corporations currently hold in our democracy,” she said.
The GM strike has not been without costs.
The company has lost more than $1 billion in earnings, workers have forfeited $835 million in wages — they do not receive their paychecks during the strike — and the federal government and the state of Michigan have lost $313 million and $18 million in tax revenue, respectively, according to estimates from the East Lansing consultancy, the Anderson Economic Group.
Parts suppliers to GM facilities across the country laid off thousands of employees and reduced the hours of many more, sending unemployment claims skyward in states like Michigan and raising fears that the prolonged stoppage could tilt economically vulnerable areas into local recessions.
The full cost of the strike won’t be known for weeks.
And if the UAW’s rank and file votes down this contract offer, it will continue.
“It had to happen — it needed to happen,” said GM worker Gary Zanetti, 58, picketing outside the Hamtramck Assembly plant in Detroit, a smoldering garbage can fire keeping him warm. “Since the last contract, [GM] made $40 billion.”
The Hamtramck plant was one of four that GM scheduled for closure, but as part of the contract negotiations, GM agreed to produce an electric truck there. Zanetti and co-workers Allan Vroman, 63, and Chris Viola, 36, were skeptical it would protect jobs, aware that electric vehicles require less labor than internal combustion engines.
“What does that mean?” Vroman asked. “Are they telling you they’re going to build seven electric trucks and call it a day? Are we going to build little electric scooters?”
Vroman scoffed at the $11,000 bonus GM was offering full-time workers who signed the contract.
“The more money they throw at you, the more you get suspicious,” he said. “We’re going to throw 11 grand at you. Maybe you won’t read page two.”
About a half-mile away at another entrance, another picketing employee, Sherwood Reason, 64, said the strike was worth the pain, even if the compromise it yielded was imperfect. He spoke about watching jobs get automated away in the plant’s paint shop in his 21 years at the company.
“To even get what we’re looking for is kind of unrealistic, because the world is changing,” he said. “There are certain things you just can’t do anything about.”