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Waiting for ratification, UAW strikers reflect America's anxiety about overall economy

Detroit Free Press • Updated Oct 24, 2019 at 12:26 PM

DETROIT — Two hours before sunrise, striking factory workers gathered around a small bonfire to keep themselves warm at the entrance of the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant owned by General Motors. They talked about a future filled with uncertainty and a sense of loss.

Their words Tuesday reflected a strain of anxiety that runs through the U.S. economy and our current political landscape just as UAW workers vote this week on whether to ratify a tentative labor agreement while striking for a sixth week.

"Some people feel we make too much money," said Gerald Crump, 41, an electrician from Macomb, Mich., who has worked at GM 22 years and supports a family of four. "But nowadays, people are working in fast food fighting for $15 an hour. In 2019, that's not a lot of money at all. We have too many people who don't make enough."

He continued: "We knew we were in for a fight. They had been preparing us for this. But I didn't think it would happen. We hope we can preserve these jobs for everyone in the country, for our children and grandchildren. We just want to keep jobs here. If you sell here, build here."

Every plant closure feels like a nail in the American coffin, workers said.

"I'm just disappointed," said Linda Crooks, a paint shop sander who just celebrated her 65th birthday and has 41 years at GM. "We shouldn't have had to be out here striking."

This is the longest strike against GM since 1970 and the first since 2007.

And while many of the 46,000 workers in 10 states say they'll stay off the job until the deal is done, the feeling of doom hovered over this strike line.

"The GM strike has become a symbol of the big picture. That's why there has been such unusual fervent support for those on the picket line," said Harley Shaiken, a University of California, Berkeley professor and national expert on labor. "You could summarize a pervasive concern of working Americans and a theme running through the strike with a single word: uncertainty. What you have today could be lost tomorrow. That uncertainty translates into broken families, shattered communities, closed factories. This goes way beyond GM."

When a corporation needs to do something, its workers become expendable — no matter how hard they've worked or how successful they've been on the job, Shaiken said. "Commitment has become a one-way street."

"It goes beyond manufacturing," he said. "This is the only way to explain it at a moment of ostensible full employment, where, for many, you have fear about the future. If you want a theme song, Bruce Springsteen's 'Youngstown' has lines in it that say, 'I worked here, fought your wars, and now that you're making all this money, you forgot my name.' "

The strike animated broader concerns in the workplace. As autoworkers fought for improved opportunity, pay and benefits for temporary workers, they highlighted the widespread practice of hiring contract workers. And as they fought for raises, they reminded middle-class Americans that wage growth has been slight despite a prolonged economic recovery since the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, strikers say their clothes are permeated with smoke after days standing beside the barrel fires at some of the 55 GM sites targeted.

Standing in darkness

In the darkness at the main entrance of the Hamtramck plant, a half-dozen workers set down their signs and gathered to watch video of conflict at the Spring Hill, Tenn., plant. GM last month obtained a court order against the UAW to restrict the picket action there. It is also the site where a worker died Tuesday morning after getting hit by a car.

In the video, UAW workers talked about what they said appeared to be conflict at the union hall and police arriving to keep the peace as members cast votes on the tentative contract. In the end, Spring Hill narrowly voted down the proposed agreement.

Workers in the Michigan cold just watched and listened quietly. It felt grim. Everyone around the country is watching and waiting to hear vote counts.

"If we vote it down, it's possible that in a second contract — we may not get what we've got now," said Bernie De Vold, 66, a quality control worker from Monroe, Mich., who has been with GM 39 years. "I'd just like to get back to work. I'm looking at retirement and wanting to get out of here."

Many workers said they planned to fight for younger workers and retire. This all seems to make people think about what's left and anxiety and uncertainty and cherishing family and friends and maybe just trying to enjoy life.

"You know what? Las Vegas is calling. Chicago is calling. Phoenix is calling. Atlanta is calling," Crooks said. "I'd just like to say 'Bye, y'all' and go enjoy life."

'Look over there'

They talk of loyalty to the company. They talk of supporting local businesses.

"The more money we make, the more money we spend," Crump said, pointing to Dan & Vi's Pizza Deli a few blocks away. "Look over there. People here go across the street to get their submarines and pizza. We are steadily pumping money into those places, into the economy."

It's puzzling, he said, how "President Trump's campaign was all about protecting American jobs but he's a critic of how much money we make," Crump said. "It's like he's between a rock and a hard place."

On the other side of a 55-gallon drum burning wood, Crooks said, "You know, God put Trump in office for a reason. From my opinion, I think he's doing the best he can do."

She shook Trump's hand when he visited Great Faith Ministries International church in Detroit during a September 2016 campaign swing. And she'll always remember that.

Stan Auby, 61, a paint shop worker from Detroit employed at GM 40 years, said, "I'm ready to get back to work. This is tiresome. And it's cold out here. But you do what you got to do."

Crooks said, "I'm out here thinking, 'Let's just get this over with.' "

'Stab in the back'

Workers say they talk football, work, even the moon.

"A little of everything," De Vold said. "I'm surprised this has gone this long. This place is like family. But we were the last to know about closings, and that was kind of like a stab in the back. We gave them quality cars. We haven't had a raise in 10 years. The public thinks we make too much money, but why? Really? ... Why don't you guys try and build a car every minute? I do 16 different things in a plant. GM has skilled workforce right here. Without us, where would GM be? Extinct."

Older workers, they've done their time, he said. "Some people die six months after they retire. A lot of people are ready to go now, let younger people take our place."

Uncertainty and worry

Labor analysts and economic forecasters say autoworkers aren't alone in fearing for the future. And uncertainty spans way beyond the industrial Midwest.

"There's reason to worry about the U.S. economy in the near term, whether we're heading into a recession or slowdown," said Harry Katz, the Jack Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining at the School of Industrial & Labor Relations at Cornell University. "Auto sales have been slowing and the implications about that are not clear. Trump's trade policies are adding to economic uncertainty. What the Fed will do about interest rates is unclear."

When talking about driverless cars and ride sharing, people within and outside the auto industry wonder about the impact on jobs and society, he said.

"Workers have every reason to worry in the long term and in the shorter term," Katz said. "Concern about their families, just general anxiety. I also study the health care sector, and there's a parallel there as employees wonder about what's happening in the industry — with Medicare for all or consolidation of big insurance companies potentially leading to large employment consequences. There are a lot of worries out there."

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