Nearly 50,000 auto workers employed by General Motors have walked off the job shutting down 35 factories in the process. The workers, represented by the United Auto Workers union, have all eyes turned towards General Motors, where the outcome of the strike will also be a bellwether for negotiations with the other “Big Three” automakers: Ford and Fiat-Chrysler of America.
Workers are fighting on a number of fronts: for an increase in base pay, to avoid increases in healthcare costs, fighting against the expanded use of temporary workers (who make less and have fewer on the job protections), pathways for temporary workers to become full-time and a fairer agreement regarding profit-sharing with workers. Workers are also fighting for job security in the shadow of four announced closures of plants by GM this year. GM has refused to meet these just demands despite the fact that the corporation made nearly $11 billion in profit last year.
GM demands a pound of flesh from employees
General Motors is claiming that the wages and benefits they pay to workers is “uncompetitive.” For that reason they want to make fairly drastic changes. On healthcare they want workers to pay 15 percent of the cost of their healthcare, up from about 3-4 percent now.
GM also wants to increase the number of temporary workers in the plant, a very contentious issue. The 2007 auto contracts allowed auto companies to bring in up to 20 percent of their workers as temporary employees. These employees do not have access to strong union benefits won by years of bitter struggle or profit sharing payments and fewer job protections all around — including being paid $14.20 an hour, roughly 60 percent of the starting hourly wage for a full-time employee.
The two-tier wage system has played a major role in the past several years as part of a broader push by auto companies to lower wages. The main thrust of this push has been to locate more plants in the non-union southern parts of the United States, and also other countries, in addition to seeking to automate more jobs.
However the push for more and more temp workers has been a major trend, and is obviously an attempt to weaken union protections. For instance in June of this year the Los Angeles Times reported:
“General Motors Co. wants to hire more temporary workers at U.S. plants and trim its healthcare costs, said people familiar with the automaker’s thinking…Right now, Japanese automakers staff their plants with about 20 percent temporary workers. By comparison, about 7% of GM’s staff are temps. Those workers have no road to becoming full-time GM employees.
“Ford had about 3,400 temps, representing 6 percent of its U.S. hourly workforce. FCA has about 47,000 U.S. hourly employees, and is believed to have about the same number of temporary workers as GM or slightly more.”
Automakers have been making a major point of this, wanting to increase the number of temporary workers and do nothing to give them permanent status or better pay. Union members rightfully see this process as a slow-moving union busting process, eroding the quality of work in auto plants over time.
As mentioned above, GM also has announced 4 plant closures so far this year. While they note they will create new jobs in some of these areas, it won’t be close to as many jobs as they are eliminating. For instance, the new electric car production they are touting comes with fewer jobs and most of the promises are vague with potential loopholes. For example GM is touting new battery production in Lordstown, Ohio after they close down the vehicle manufacturing plant there. However, if that work is subcontracted new workers could lose access to some pension benefits.
GM has the money
Considering that General Motors made $10.8 billion in profits last year, it is an absolute outrage that they paid $0 in Federal taxes. Yes that’s right, zero dollars. They actually booked a negative -$4.3 billion in taxes due to the massive amount of write offs the tax code allows to help them hide their fat profits. In fact from 2016-2018 GM made $37.2 billion in profits.
GM has also spent $10 billion since 2015 in stock buybacks. This is a process that’s grown increasingly popular on Wall Street in recent years in which companies buy back big chunks of its own stock from investors to make those investors wealthier and artificially make their company appear stronger.
As CBS noted about the stock buybacks in 2018, that $10 billion was more than double the proposed savings GM celebrated in the fall of 2018 when it announced an intention to wipe-out 14,000 jobs.
Dignity and respect for all workers on the line
The auto industry has used the past several Big 3 contracts to influence workers at non-union plants around the country, particularly in the U.S. south, not to unionize by disingenuously claiming that they show the UAW is unable to dramatically improve workers’ living standards. But on the other hand, if GM workers can force the company to narrow the gap between temporary and full-time workers, maintain their healthcare and prevent at least some job losses, the strike could inspire more unionization in the industry and more strikes for that matter.
The strike is also taking place amidst a backdrop of a number of high-ranking UAW officials being convicted of and investigated for corrupt practices such as taking payoffs from the auto companies. During the contract talks before the strike, industry trade publications noted fear from GM, Ford and FCA that this may lead autoworkers to become more militant, and strike harder and longer to try to prevent any potential corrupt sell-out.
Industry groups also reportedly feared the impact of social media, given the example of the recent wave of teachers’ strikes, as a medium through which workers could coordinate even more closely and build more collective strength to keep going. In a sign of labor solidarity, the Teamsters announced that they will not be transporting General Motors vehicles on their trucks during the strike.
One of the United States’ wealthiest companies, in a profit-soaked industry, is still doing everything possible to reduce the living standards of their workers as their executives and major shareholders live high-off the hog. If workers win at GM it will be a blow against the power of corporations to exploit and oppress however they see fit. All working class people should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with auto workers as they fight for a fair share of the wealth they created and strike a blow at the corporate greed devastating communities across the country.