They took a chance on their employers by accepting a stake in the company in exchange for those sacrifices, seeing the agreement as part of an emerging partnership with GM.
And that partnership paid off — for GM, anyway. The company has earned $35 billion in profits in the last three years, partly as a result of the concessions the workers made over a decade ago.
But when it comes to reciprocity, GM evidently sees things differently, adopting a hard-line approach in negotiations with the union that led to a strike Sept. 16.
As the strike by about 50,000 GM workers enters its third week, costing GM at least $50 million a day and disrupting production across North America, the company seems prepared to accept these significant losses and has dug in to oppose the UAW’s demands.
And so a lot of workers say they are angry, and that they feel taken advantage of and betrayed. For many of them, it’s personal.
“We gave up a cost-of-living increase, a dollar-an-hour wage increase we were due, tuition assistance and more,” says Darrell Kennedy, a striking worker in UAW Region 1, Local 22, in a union-produced YouTube video.
William Spriggs, Howard University professor and chief economist for the AFL-CIO, is almost apoplectic at GM’s rigid opposition, calling it “the height of audacity.”
“The UAW saved General Motors. Now they are making record profits, and they don’t want to take care of the workers who once took care of them,” he says.
His wife’s mother works for GM, he notes. “People like my mother-in-law put their pensions on the line in 2008. They deserve better.”
At the heart of the dispute is GM’s three-tiered wage system that allows the company to pay some workers as much as 50 percent less than fellow workers who do the very same job.
Those hired before 2007 are Tier One workers who earn the highest wages, roughly $31 per hour, plus guaranteed pensions. Those hired after 2007, Tier Two workers, earn about $17 an hour and instead of pensions have the opportunity for 401(k) participation.
Finally, temporary workers earn even less than Tier Two workers and have fewer, if any, benefits.
The union wants better pay for Tier Two workers and a path to job security for temporary employees.
But as GM prepares to transition away from traditional gas-powered cars to electric vehicles, the company is unwilling to commit. Management wants to maintain flexibility in its workforce to save money.
As for that partnership, which mattered so much when the company needed saving in 2008, GM is signaling its intention to close plants — and shed workers — as it transitions to electric cars that are less expensive to produce and require less labor.
Instead of the give-and-take that might be expected in a partnership, UAW staff members say GM has been unwilling to give on even the smallest points, and has been playing hardball at every step of the negotiations.
The GM offer came only two hours before the strike deadline, giving union negotiators little time to consider it. GM got an injunction against strikers in Spring Hill, Tenn., to prevent them from picketing outside the plant. At one point the company threatened to stop paying health care benefits for striking workers. (It has since relented.)
Its position has only hardened the resolve of workers who have felt for years that they aren’t being dealt with fairly. And some of those workers say they have no choice but to take a stand.
The United Auto Workers union is far more diverse than some of organized labor. African American membership may be as much as 30 percent.
Joann Watson, a professor at Wayne County Community College and former Detroit City Council member, says union jobs were instrumental in the development of a black middle class in Detroit. For some of the old-timers, having a UAW membership card was like having a voter registration card, she says.
The duration of the UAW strike suggests that workers have had enough.
General Motors is not as dominant as it once was. Formerly the nation’s largest employer, it now ranks 13th. But it remains a significant force, especially in those red/purple states like Michigan where Republicans rolled over Democrats in 2016.
Some union workers believed President Trump’s line that making America great again meant better wages. Instead, in the “best economy we’ve ever seen,” wages have been stagnant, and the bargaining process does not recognize the sacrifice autoworkers have made to keep GM alive.
So workers are drawing a line in the sand, demanding fair treatment — or a genuine partnership. More than 400,000 teachers struck in 2018 in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina demanding fair pay and working conditions.
Like autoworkers, teachers made sacrifices in light of the Great Recession. When state tax revenue began to increase in economic recovery, teacher pay did not. Like autoworkers, teachers chose to take it to the streets to bring attention to their plight.
Labor is not as powerful as it once was. Just 7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized. However, workers who are unionized earn at least 20 percent more than those who are not. Labor actions are a signal to other workers. The UAW strike and the teachers strikes may represent labor’s strong resistance to wage stagnation and the erosion of employers’ obligations toward their workers. It’s about time.
Julianne Malveaux is the secretary-treasurer of the Economic Policy Institute, which is funded in part by unions. A labor economist, author, educator and national affairs commentator, she is co-host of WPFW’s “Works in Progress” radio program and host of “Malveaux!,” a television program on UDC-TV.