GM strike finally ends as UAW members approve new contract

The GM plant in Lordstown, OH on March 26, 2019. (Bloomberg photo by Maddie McGarvey)

Members of the United Automobile Workers union approved a new contract with General Motors, ending a strike that shuttered the automaker and sent nearly 50,000 workers to picket lines across the country, in what was one of the largest work stoppages in recent years.

The deal, which includes modest improvements in pay for new employees and promises that the company will bring full-time temporary workers on permanently, passed this week after being voted on by GM’s 47,000 workers.

Workers will get an $11,000 signing bonus and some mandatory raises.

Some of those who voted for the deal described it to The Washington Post as a successful compromise.

“Every contract you’re going to have your issues,” said Martin Tutwiler, 42, a GM employee in Warren, Michigan. “You’re not going to get everything you want. But you look at it as a whole and see if you can live with it.”

If a majority votes to approve the deal, workers could be back at factories as soon as Saturday, ending picket lines, which have been staffed round-the-clock by workers at GM plants from West Virginia to Texas.

Employees began the strike Sept. 16, saying they wanted a more equitable contract as General Motors reaps near-record profits but continues to shutter plants in the United States. Many said the company’s growing use of temporary workers – including many who’ve worked for years alongside permanent employees for significantly less pay and fewer benefits – was of significant concern, as is the wage system GM instituted after the recession, which required a lengthy period – eight years – for workers to “grow in” to full hourly pay.

Tutwiler said the fight’s biggest impact might be what it represents beyond GM. He said the union’s show of strength – the six-week walkout is one of the largest in the past 30 years – would inspire other workers pushing for change around the country.

The action comes amid a surge in the number of workers participating in strikes. In 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, nearly 500,000 walked off their jobs, the highest number since 1986, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Though the number of unionized workers has been falling for decades, the strikes have given unions a sense of energy and momentum, amid a larger national discussion that increasingly turns on issues of equality and fairness. Other unions, as well as more informal groups of organized workers, say they are paying attention.

Last week, 25,000 teachers in Chicago began a strike that has canceled classes in the country’s third-largest public school district. Some union organizers there said they had been watching the GM situation closely.

The length of the UAW strike – the longest at GM since 1973 – exacted a cost for the company, for the workers who have forgone regular paychecks, and related businesses, which experienced layoffs from Canada to Mexico.

The auto giant has lost more than $1 billion in earnings, while workers have forfeited $835 million in wages, though the signing bonus will wipe out the lost earnings for most, analysts say.

“I’m ready to go back to work,” said Vanessa Banks, president of UAW Local 1590, which represents GM workers at a plant in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

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