UAW Members Nervous, but Stoic Over GM Strike


Members of the United Auto Workers union at General Motors reacted with a mixture of nervousness, surprise and stoicism Monday after their union called a strike against the top U.S. automaker.

"Right now I don't feel like we need this strike," Bernie Devold, 55, said outside UAW Local 22 headquarters in Detroit.

"This is going to hurt us and it's going to hurt GM."

UAW Local 22 represents more than 1,800 workers who make a Buick and a Cadillac model.

Within minutes of an 11 a.m. EDT strike deadline set by the union, cars streamed into the parking lot of the Local 22 as members came to collect their picket assignments.

The union set a deadline late Sunday night when negotiators from both sides failed to reach an agreement on a new contract that would replace a 4-year deal on wages and benefits that expired Sept. 14.

"I'm nervous, man," said Khader Marzouq, 53, a 33-year GM veteran. "I have three kids in college and bills to pay, but if GM is playing hard ball, I guess we have to go out."

Aleasa Petross-Smith, 56, a GM worker for 28 years said: "We have given up plenty for GM, now they can give something up for us. I'm behind the union 100 percent."

In Lansing, Michigan, about two dozen workers picketed at a gate of GM's Lansing Grand River plant where three Cadillac models are made. Shop committeeman Mike Green said all gates on public property were covered by pickets.

"We are here to support the international union and whatever they need," he said.

The workers carried plain placards that read "UAW on strike." As in Detroit, they said they were hopeful the strike would be over soon.

"I don't think we will be out too long, but you never know," said Benjamin Fomby, 54. He said he would like to work at least until the age of 55.

Keith Jackson, a veteran of three strikes after 34 years with GM, said "the stakes are high for both sides.

"This is the last thing anyone out here wanted to do."

The GM strike was the latest blow for an embattled U.S. industry that has seen Detroit-based automakers -- General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler -- cut more than 80,000 union jobs after losing a combined $15 billion in 2006.

In Michigan, GM's blue-collar home state, unemployment is 7.2 percent, the highest in the nation. Home foreclosures in Detroit, where GM has its headquarters, are running at five times the national average.

Gung-Ho Pensioners

If current workers appeared lacking in enthusiasm for a strike, GM retirees welcomed the news of a walk-out.

The last UAW strike against GM was in 1998. That walk-out at two GM parts plants in Flint, Michigan, shut down GM production and caused sales to plummet.

One of the key points up for discussion between the UAW and GM is how to fund the health-care costs of 540,000 retired workers and their spouses -- who outnumber GM's active work force of 73,000 more than seven to one.

At Local 22, retired worker Vince Badia, 75, punched the air with joy when benefits representative "Huck" Atterberry delivered news of the strike with a shrug of his shoulders.

North of Detroit in Bay City, Michigan, at GM's Powertrain engine and component plant, retirees were among two dozen picketers outside the factory gate.

These included Bonnie Lauria, 66, who retired five years ago and was using a walker while picketing. She was wearing a button that said "Hands off my pension."

Cletus van Snepson, another retiree at the gate, said "a lot of people never thought it (strike) would happen, but they have to do it."

A number of current UAW workers, however, said they were worried that a strike would cost them their jobs, especially as a deal with GM looked so close over the weekend.

"I feel like I just got laid off," said one silver-haired worker at UAW Local 22 in Detroit, who declined to give his name as he climbed into his car and sped off.