Auto Workers Go on Strike as GM Talks Fail
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
I'm Melissa Block.
And this was the head of the United Auto Workers union today.
Mr. RON GETTELFINGER (President, United Auto Workers): This is nothing that we wanted. Nobody wins in a strike. But there comes a point in time where somebody can push you off a cliff, and that's exactly what happened here.
BLOCK: That's UAW president Ron Gettelfinger announcing the first nationwide walkout in the auto industry in more than a three decades.
SIEGEL: General Motors is the target of the workers' action. The company and the union are in negotiations on a groundbreaking new contract. GM is hoping to slash costs to compete against foreign firms. The union wants to keep jobs in the U.S.
NPR's Frank Langfitt starts our coverage from Detroit.
FRANK LANGFITT: The union had set a deadline for a deal at 11 this morning. And when the time passed with no agreement, hundreds of workers poured out of GM's Cadillac plant in Detroit. Then they descended on a Local 22 for their assignments.
Local president George McGregor directed traffic as Mike Coppa(ph), a GM factory worker, loaded up on picket signs.
Mr. GEORGE McGREGOR (President, United Auto Workers Local 22): Hey, Mike. Did you get the signs over there?
Mr. MIKE COPPA (Factory Worker, General Motors): They have already been out, George. I'm way on top of you.
Mr. McGREGOR: Okay. You ran out, Mike?
Mr. COPPA: Yeah. I got the stuff off this - about five to fifteen at each gate. I'm going to pick up some more.
LANGFITT: As workers hit the picket line, GM issued this statement read by company's spokeswoman Katie McBride.
Ms. KATIE McBRIDE (Spokeswoman, General Motors): We are disappointed in the UAW's decision to call a national strike. The bargaining involved complex, difficult issues that affect the job security of our U.S. workforce and a long-term viability of the company. We are fully committed to working with the UAW to develop solutions together to address the competitive challenges facing General Motors.
LANGFITT: In fact, talks between the company and the union resumed by mid-afternoon. Negotiations have focused on the union taking over responsibility for retiree health care. But Gettelfinger says the top issue right now is job security.
In the last several years, GM has moved to get rid of 30,000 and closed 12 plants in the United States. The union's worried that the company will continue to send new products overseas where labor is often dramatically cheaper. Gettelfinger's looking for commitments to build new cars here at home. If workers were energized by the strike, many were also uneasy.
Dave McCullough(ph) works on the door of the Buick Lucerne at a nearby plant. He was carrying signs across the parking lot to his van and worried about a long strike.
Mr. DAVE McCULLOUGH (Factory Worker, General Motors): A lot of us are already hurting as it is, (unintelligible) financially due for different reasons or something else than that. But, I mean, if we stay out for a long time, a lot of people soon will lose their homes, that Michigan's economy is bad as it is, (unintelligible) people houses are foreclosure and everything else. I mean, in the city that I live in alone has over 200 homes in foreclosure.
LANGFITT: How long do you think you can manage to stay out on strike?
Mr. McCULLOUGH: Myself, I would say maybe a week. I'm hoping this would only going to last for maybe two days or day and a half, that's it.
Ms. TANYA FITZPATRICK (Chairwoman, Women's Committee, United Auto Workers Local 22): That's right. You're thirsty from noon to 4 p.m. at the west zone.
LANGFITT: Tanya Fitzpatrick is the women's committee chair at Local 22. She's doling out assignments for the picket line. But the company pushing the union to take over retiree health care, she's concerned the company will just keep asking for more.
Ms. FITZPATRICK: I love working for General Motors but I also love my union. And it's time for the union to stand up. We can't keep giving and giving and the big bosses are getting and getting.
LANGFITT: But it's not like GM, Ford and Chrysler are making tons of money. Last year, they all lost billions of dollars. And a long strike at GM could be devastating. I asked Fitzpatrick if workers should try to help the company as it battles rising health care cost and fierce competition from foreign firms.
Ms. FITZPATRICK: That's hard - a hard one for me to call. I'm not sure. I don't want to see GM lose because that's my bread and butter. But - and the same time, I don't want to give up what I've worked for 30 years.
LANGFITT: George McGregor, the head of Local 22, recalls the last time the union struck nationwide, it stayed out 67 days. Asked if the autoworkers can stay out as long this time, he pauses to think. Then he gives his answer. They can hold out one day longer than the company.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Detroit.