Autos

GM workers who picketed in 2007 say that strike was political. This time it's 'serious'

Key Points
  • Negotiations are ongoing between the UAW and GM as roughly 48,000 union members walk picket lines on strike.
  • The strike is estimated to be costing GM upward of $100 million a day in lost production.
  • GM's usage of temporary workers, potential closure of plants and health care contributions remain major sticking points,
Adriane Hall, a United Auto Workers member of 12 years, screams as vehicles drive by honking in support of autoworkers in Flint, Mich. on Sept. 16th, 2019. The Flint Assembly employees are among the roughly 48,000 General Motors workers who have been on strike and picketing since Monday.
Michael Wayland | CNBC

FLINT, Mich. – Adriane Hall screamed as she held her picket sign in the air while drivers passing by honked their horns in support of the United Auto Workers' strike against General Motors.

It's the second time Hall, a UAW member with GM of 12 years, has had to walk a picket line with her union brethren during contract negotiations with the automaker. During her first strike in 2007, she was a mother-to-be who had recently been hired by GM as a temporary worker.

"When I had to walk out, I was scared that day," Hall, wearing a "solidarity red shirt," recalled to CNBC. "I was a temp, and I was pregnant."

Twelve years later, that fear has resurfaced as Hall picketed Monday outside a GM plant in Flint, Michigan, now trying to support her 11-year-old son and family. This time, she's at least more prepared. She been working overtime and saving as much money as possible over the past few months just in case of a prolonged strike.

"The worry is how long is this going to be? It's important, so we bracing ourselves for it to be long," Hall said.

Workers on the picket lines receive $250 a week in "strike pay" from the union, however workers aren't eligible for the payments until the eighth day of the strike and they don't receive the money until the 15th day.

On the picket lines, local businesses and other supporters bring food, drinks and water to the striking workers. In Flint earlier this week, boxes of Little Caesars pizza were stacked on a table as Jimmy John's workers from a nearby store passed out free sandwiches to picketers.

A worker from a Jimmy John's store passes out free sampler sandwiches to United Auto Workers members with General Motors manning a picket line on Sept. 16, 2019 in Flint, Mich.
Michael Wayland | CNBC

'Heavier'

Hall, 41, is one of roughly 48,000 UAW members who have been on strike since Monday, after the automaker and union failed to reaching a tentative deal before their current contract expired Saturday night. It is the UAW's first national strike against GM since 2007.

But the outcome and consequences of this strike, Hall says, are far more important than her first time on the picket line.

"This one is more heavier to me than the one in '07," she said. "It's a lot. Back then, we lost some benefits but the health care" and other issues, including GM potentially closing four U.S. plants, this year are "important."

Patty Thomas, a GM worker at the Detroit plant who has worked for the automaker for 19 years, agrees: "The other one was just a political move, I think," she said walking as the strike began Monday morning. "This one looks serious. We've got to stand together."

So does Richard Wilson, a UAW member of 42 years and strike captain for Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly in Michigan: "The last one only lasted a day and a half," he said Wednesday as roughly a dozen or so workers picketed outside of the main gate of the plant. "The union is coming a little bit harder this time around. They mean business."

The strike is estimated to be costing GM upward of $100 million a day in lost production, according to Wall Street analysts.

United Auto Workers members on strike picket outside General Motors' Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant on Sept. 18, 2019 in Detroit.
Michael Wayland / CNBC

GM's usage of temporary workers, potential closure of plants and health-care contributions remain among the major sticking points, according to people familiar with the talks.

The issues hit home for Hall, who is now a permanent employee but was recently forced to move about four hours away when she transferred from GM's Lordstown Assembly plant in Ohio, which was idled in March, to Flint.

After a dozen years as an auto worker, Hall said the generous health-care benefits the companies provide for UAW employees, costing workers just 3% out of pocket, are a necessity.

"I have carpal tunnel, heel spurs and I've been to physical therapy for my shoulder and my knees. I'm only 41," she said. "That's why we need that health care to be on the company. ... The repetitive wear and tear on your body is horrible."

The UAW on Tuesday night released a video on social media detailing workers' needs for low health-care costs that featured several members explaining why they felt their health care should remain unchanged.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a long-term GM worker that doesn't live on a day-to day basis with permanent injury as a result of the job," said Denny Ramos, a striking GM worker in Lansing, Michigan, in the video.

GM counters

GM, according to a source familiar with the negotiations, at one time pushed for the UAW to make concessions on health care that would increase union members' out-of-pocket costs to about 15%. That's still far below the nearly national average of 30% for most manufacturing workers in the U.S. but five times higher than members are accustomed to paying.

That increase didn't go over well with union negotiators. GM backed down by Sunday, saying union members would continue to retain "their nationally-leading health care benefits."

In a hardball negotiating move, GM moved the health coverage for employees on strike from the company's plan to temporary COBRA health insurance, which is significantly more expensive. The union must pay for it out of its "strike fund," which totaled more than $721 million in 2018.

GM, in a statement, said it understands "strikes are difficult and disruptive to families. While on strike, some benefits shift to being funded by the union's strike fund, and in this case hourly employees are eligible for union-paid COBRA so their health care benefits can continue."

GM and Ford Motor are expected to each pay roughly $1 billion in health-care costs this year. GM paid $900 million in 2018, up from $760 million in 2014.

UAW Vice President Terry Dittes, in a letter to members, confirmed the union "will provide medical assistance or a COBRA option, if necessary," to members.

Many members this week were confused as to whether or not their health-care costs were completely cut off during the strike. In Flint, at a local union hall, several people were lined up waiting to ask questions about health care, strike pay and other benefits.

"We just want a fair deal," said UAW Local 22 President Wiley Turnage as he manned the picket lines midday Wednesday with his members on Wednesday. "We deserve it."

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Here's why auto union members are striking against General Motors