Midnight on the UAW picket line: Weary GM workers hope tentative deal will end strike

CNBC Automobile 1 month ago

DETROIT – As the clock struck midnight, there was no dancing or cheering outside of a General Motors assembly plant in Detroit as there had been a month before — when the United Auto Workers strike against the automaker began.

The dozens of UAW members, supporters and television cameras that were there Sept. 16 were long gone. What remained was a handful of plant workers at each gate lackadaisically holding picket signs or tending to fires in metal garbage cans for warmth.

Despite the lack of pageantry, press and people, UAW members outside of the Detroit plant Tuesday night and Wednesday morning remained resilient and hopeful their union and company could reach a deal to end the union's longest strike against GM since 1970.

While the union announced a proposed tentative agreement with GM on Wednesday, the strike against the automaker will continue through at least Thursday morning. Local UAW leaders from across the country are gathering in Detroit at 10:30 a.m. ET to vote on the proposed pact and determine whether or not to keep the automaker's workers on strike during the voting process, which traditionally takes weeks to complete.

The monthlong strike is taking a toll on union members hoping to trade in their picket signs for a paycheck.

Picketing after midnight

"I'd rather go back to work. Steady sleep, steady time with family," said Al Cowans, one of three people picketing outside the main gate of the plant around 12:40 a.m., hours before the deal was announced. "But it's worth it. We work for the whole country. A lot of people don't realize that."

The idea that the union is fighting for a larger cause such as the American middle class and blue-collar workers has motivated many striking workers.

"We're here for all workers. We're not just fighting for ourselves," said Nick Schuck, a UAW member of 13 years who was picketing outside another gate. "We're fighting for this country. We're fighting to bring jobs home."

The more than 700 hourly workers left at the Detroit plant — many have been transferred to other facilities as GM winds down operations at the plant — are part of the 48,000 UAW members on strike against the automaker at 55 facilities in roughly a dozen states.

Detroit-Hamtramck was a key piece of the union's negotiations with GM. The facility was one of four U.S. plants earmarked for closure heading into the negotiations. Under the current deal, the plant will receive production of a new all-electric pickup, which was part of a previous proposal between the two sides, according to two people familiar with the negotiations.

Selling honey

Union members have arguably been feeling the pain in their pockets more than the company, which is estimated to have lost about $2 billion as a result of the work stoppage. The UAW has been paying striking workers $250 a week in "strike pay," recently increasing that to $275. However, many have sought other forms of income or loans.

"It's not an enjoyable situation. Everybody out here would rather be coming in and working. You can't support your family on no $250 a week," said Mitch Seaton, one of about five people picketing outside a gate at the Detroit plant just before midnight. "We have families, we have responsibilities. But we do what we got to do."

Seaton, 62, a union veteran of 33 years, has been selling honey. Six years ago, he started beekeeping as a hobby but has found himself trying to sell as much honey as he can during the work stoppage.

'This thing could go south'

"I've been selling honey because this thing could go south," said Seaton, adding that he's been "hoping and praying" for a tentative agreement between the union and automaker. "We didn't save up for this."

Cowans, 57, who has started at the plant in 1999, said he saved money in anticipation of a potential strike, however he didn't expect the work stoppage to go this long.

"This ain't what we want to do," he said. "This strike should not have happened. They had four years to get things together. I've been with General Motors too many years."

The union last week announced a $25 increase in pay for striking members as well as the ability to seek part-time work, however many UAW members at the Detroit plant said they don't have much spare time because the union requires them to picket several days a week to qualify for strike pay.

A major misunderstanding about the strike, according to several workers, is that the GM workers aren't trying to make GM go back to its "old ways" that led to the automaker's bankruptcy. They want it to succeed, while better compensating workers and ensuring "equal pay for equal work."

"Everything I own, I owe to General Motors, Seaton said. "We're definitely not against General Motors. That's the one thing a lot of people don't understand. They think we're striking because we hate General Motors. Hell, I don't hate General Motors. I love General Motors."

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