Shifting Gears

The United Automobile Workers strikes General Motors

by Cate Turner

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel

published October 11, 2019


On September 15, nearly 50,000 United Automobile Workers (UAW) union members formed picket lines outside of General Motors factories across the United States. Launched in response to problems negotiating their contract, it was the union’s first strike since 2007.

More than three weeks later, the UAW-GM strike continues. Over the course of negotiations, GM has cut off, and restored, healthcare coverage for striking employees. The company has lost an estimated $600 million, and 34 of its plants have temporarily shuttered.

To better understand the implications of the strike, the College Hill Independent spoke with retired labor organizer and social activist Frank Hammer. Over the course of his 32 years working at GM, Hammer held the positions of President and Chairman of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan, as well as UAW-GM International Representative. He also co-founded Autoworker Caravan, an advocacy group linking current and retired autoworkers. Hammer discussed the automotive industry crisis of 2008-10, class consciousness in union organizing, and transnational labor solidarity.




It’s been 12 years since the UAW last voted to strike General Motors. Can you explain your demands this time around and why you’re striking?

The strike, of course, is the result of GM and the UAW not being able to come to terms on a new contract. The 2015 contract expired, and they did not reach agreement on new terms for the contract. That’s what prompted the strike. The UAW describes the issues in a very general way, in terms of what they’re actually bargaining for, but that includes things like job security, a means by which temporary workers can become permanent workers, the question of health care for the current workers, [...] the question of the future of the four US plants that were idled. Those are some of the issues. One of the strong issues has to do with the multiple-tier system that exists in all the GM locations, in terms of people doing similar work and getting different rates of pay and different benefits.


When did that multiple-tier pay system emerge?

In GM, it emerged in 2007. That’s when the two-tier system was first negotiated. It was actually before the Wall Street financial crisis, before the bankruptcy bailout in 2009—it was actually implemented a couple years before that. It was basically done on the argument that the UAW would either accept the two-tier structure in the plants, or GM would outsource the work to non-union locations, and the UAW would have to go out and organize unorganized workers where the work would have been sent. So the UAW preferred to keep workers in the plants, and they conceded to the two-tier system.


Can you talk about the Wall Street crash and other economic events of the last 12 years, and what effect they’ve had on the UAW?

My view on that question is different from what’s generally out there. The general view is that the US government under President Obama had rescued the auto industry and it survived and the companies thrived and so on. My view is actually that the auto companies were looking for such a financial crisis to actually implement cutbacks against the UAW agreements [...] and they used that as an opportunity, with the US government’s help, to really decimate the contractual rights that were previously won. For example, we lost the right to strike—the right to strike was suspended for half a dozen years. We lost overtime pay premium after eight hours. Contractually, they had to pay us time-and-a-half after eight hours, but now they only have to do what the law requires, which is after 40 hours, and things of that order. There were a lot of changes for the UAW.


There have been several rounds of contract negotiations in the past five years. Why is this one different? Why are you striking now?

I think one of the main reasons, if you were to ask rank-and-file workers, is that everybody understands that all the concessions that have been made in the UAW agreements, going back to 2007, have resulted in General Motors regaining profitability. Over the last three years, I think, they have made 35 billions dollars, and in the meantime, workers in the plants are in very onerous situations with this multi-tier structure and workers getting $15 dollars an hour or less. I think that people thought it was time to demand that the company share that surplus value that workers are generating, that more of it ought to go to the workers and not so much to the bankers and to the GM financiers of Wall Street.


You’ve been involved in activism for 50 years and you’ve had a lot of different roles in this union. You’re also a former General Motors employee. Could you talk about how you’ve seen labor organizing change over the years, through all the different positions you’ve occupied?

Back in the ’70s, when I hired in at GM, there were 450 or 500 thousand workers that, alone, just worked for GM. We were a massive force, as manufacturing workers in the Big Three. If you fast-forward to today, GM is now the smallest employer of UAW members [among car manufacturers] in the US, with around 46,000. We’ve been shaved to one-tenth of what we were, just as a force to be reckoned with. It’s happened through automation, it’s happened through the decline in market share, it’s happened through outsourcing. In many ways, we’re not the formidable force that we were in the ’70s. This has made for changes in terms of power, workers’ sense of their own power, and so on. That’s one change.

The other change that I’ve observed that is critical is the agenda of management and union partnership. Even though it was present, even in the ’70s, it really grew and became a thing, and actually took over the entire ideology of the union and the union leadership. So that had an impact as well, in terms of disarming the workers from seeing themselves as class-conscious fighters versus being a partner and helping GM become more competitive in the name of job security.


What exactly is management-union partnership?

The idea was that we shouldn’t be adversaries, that the conflicts were of no benefit to either party. That’s the theory of it, that we should instead work cooperatively, and that if the union looked after GM’s competitiveness, GM in turn would look after the workers’ benefits and job security and so on. That was the formula, and it was institutionalized in things that were called “joint activity centers.” They were institutionalized through a financing mechanism that was agreed to through the contractual agreements. It became an army of joint activity-appointed personnel and appointed workers, downtown in its own building, and then also in all the plants. So, a real structural change in the structure of the way the union operated within General Motors. It became this partnership at all levels, and you had all kinds of advocates of it who were appointed staff in order to carry it out.


How do you see union organizing now? What place do you think it has in progressive politics more generally? It’s something that’s been talked about a lot recently, because there have been high-profile strikes, with the teachers union and others. How do you see this strike fitting into that?

I think that this strike is quite significant, in the sense—and I am speaking partly from having been on some of the picket lines in Detroit—that there really is an outpouring of class feeling among autoworkers, and a sense of solidarity. For example, my plant is one of the four that are in the process of being closed, and there are only a handful of individuals working at my plant. So our picket lines are staffed by Ford workers and Chrysler workers. They’re doing it as an act of solidarity and this class feeling—that we’re all in this together, that Ford and Chrysler workers understand, “hey, we’re next,” that we’re all family. To me, it really represents a very interesting dynamic that you wouldn’t have seen without the strike. Now that it’s out there, now that people have had these feelings of solidarity, walking the picket lines with each other, supplying food and supplying water, all of those kinds of things, I think that it’s opened up a new avenue to see the manufacturing workers in the US in a different light. Most of what you’re talking about—the strikes, the organizing efforts—have been in the public sector or in the service sector. So I think this is a major break from that, and it portends, depending on where things go, that there’s going to be more organizing in the manufacturing sector than previously.


What’s the general sense of where you’re at with negotiations right now? Also, how can people who aren’t directly connected to the UAW support the strike or get involved?

The latest communication [from UAW leadership], which was over the weekend, established that negotiations aren’t going so well, that, in some ways, they went backwards. For example, GM earlier on—at the very beginning, before the strike began—said that they were offering to put some work in the Detroit location, and over in Lordstown, Ohio. Now, the word was that they’re withdrawing those offers. I think the way it’s being presented to the public is that negotiations are getting to a tenuous moment. It could be that these are public pronouncements to wear the strikers down to get them to be accepting of an agreement that’s not quite up to their standards, and that that might be the intention. But that’s speculation—we’ll see. There’s no doubt that General Motors is playing hardball, and that GM showed itself when, without notice and without warning, it cut off the healthcare of all striking workers, which it had to retreat on and reinstate it. I don’t know what the status is now. Clearly, GM is wanting to get its way. I think that workers understand that and will continue with the striking process.

In terms of how people can support, clearly the best way is—if you’re in a town or an area where there is a GM distribution center or a GM facility—coming out in support of the picket lines is the best way of engaging in support. I know that there are folks in non-GM locations that have talked about organizing informational tickets—for example, at auto dealers. I don’t know that that’s actually going on, but I know that, for people who want to lend some support and be visible about it, that’s one of the ways that people have spoken about doing it. In terms of contributions and donations, I know that the local unions can’t accept financial donations, but strikers can receive donations in kind. That’s probably one of the best ways to help the picketing workers, by keeping them supplied with foodstuffs, rain gear, any one of a number of ways that people can lend support to the strikers.


Is there anything else that you think is important to highlight about this movement?

One is that those of us who are activists within the ranks have really tried to promote an international approach to this struggle, because we understand that GM is an international corporation, and, as it is, we have workers around the world who are currently engaged in fights with General Motors, and that it would be incumbent upon us to close ranks and reach out to the workers. For example, there are strikers right now in South Korea who are striking over issues with GM. We have Mexican workers who work at a truck plant in Silao who were laid off as a result of parts shortages due to the strike. But I know that some of them were fired because of support for the GM strikers in the States. We have workers in Brazil, members of a union called Con Lutas, who are also engaged in the campaign against precarious work with GM in São Paulo. And we have workers in Colombia who are engaged in the fight with GM who are workers who sustain injuries in the workplace and are subsequently fired because of those injuries, and are cast out on the street without any compensation. They’re engaged in a battle with General Motors to get their jobs back, to get compensation. There are all these organized fights, it seems, for people who are strikers here in the US to reach out and become more unified across borders.


What steps do you think should be taken to create solidarity across national borders?

A couple of us are in Oshawa right now, and last night there was a wonderful solidarity rally by members of the Unifor Local 222 who themselves are confronted with the closure of their GM facility in Oshawa. Many workers turned out in solidarity with GM workers in the States. We had a great rally, a great gathering, and I think it’s energized the Canadian workers. I think more gatherings and more connections of that order are what we should be doing.


CATE TURNER B’21 doesn't know how to drive, but does know to stand with the union.