The Motivations Behind the UAW Strike Micheline Maynard, The New York Times' Detroit bureau chief, talks about the United Auto Workers' ongoing strike against General Motors. In the first national strike at GM in more than 30 years, 73,000 UAW members are seeking to secure their jobs and their benefits.
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The Motivations Behind the UAW Strike

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington.

And now, to today, the second day of the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors. Members of the union want GM to do more to guarantee their jobs and benefits. The result, some 73,000 autoworkers are on the picket lines in the first national strike at GM in more than 30 years.

We want to hear from callers on the picket line in particular. If you're a striking GM worker, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Do you think the strike will help? How long do you think it will last? Again, we want to hear from GM workers on strike at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK.

And we're joined now by Micheline Maynard, Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times. She's with us from our studio in New York.

And Micheline Maynard, good to have you with us.

Ms. MICHELINE MAYNARD (Detroit Bureau Chief, The New York Times): Thank you for having me.

BROOKS: As we mentioned, 73,000 workers on strike, where are these folks striking and how many facilities and how many states?

Ms. MAYNARD: General Motors has about 50 facilities and that includes parts plants, engine plants, assembly plants, even the General Motors' tech center. So it's pretty much on the eastern side of the country.

BROOKS: So it's all over the place.

Ms. MAYNARD: Mm-hmm.

BROOKS: So bring us up to date. What is at the heart of their grievance? Job security and benefits, can you flesh it out a little bit?

Ms. MAYNARD: Right. Well, the job security issue pretty much comes down to this. General Motors is planning to cut about 30,000 jobs through next year. And once its finished with that restructuring, the UAW wants some guarantees from General Motors that there won't be anymore job cuts. And anybody who has a job under this contract will stay employed until the end of the contract. To put this in context, there are about 73,000 GM workers now. There are about 400,000 GM workers when the last strike took place in 1970, and that number pretty much held in place until about 1990.

BROOKS: Hmm. Now, there's an old joke that General Motors should be called Generous Motors. What kind of benefits do these workers want to protect?

Ms. MAYNARD: Well, that's very true. And, in fact, they also called it Mother Motors something that would protect you throughout your lifetime. It used to be that General Motors' workers had extremely generous health care benefits that you could include your wife and your children on your health care benefits essentially for free. Now, that changed a couple of years ago, and GM workers pay a greater part of their health care coverage - they pay for office visits, they pay for co-pays. But compared with a lot of people who have health care coverage, it's still a very generous plan.

BROOKS: Hmm. You wrote this morning that with regard to this strike, both sides risk great damage to their images. How so?

Ms. MAYNARD: Well, I think that's true. I think over the last few years, the United Auto Workers has tried very hard to become something of a partner to the auto companies. I mean, their fate is tied in with the auto companies. As the market share goes down for Detroit, jobs go away for the UAW. And I think they were trying to be seen as someone who is on the car marker's side.

For General Motors, they're trying to prove that there can be a large American car company that survives this great crisis facing the auto industry. And they really wanted to be the one strong American player who got through this period of decline.

BROOKS: Hmm. 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. We're asking people, in particular if you're on the picket line of General Motors, to give us a call and let us know what's going on and what you think about the strike.

I want to read an e-mail that's just come in. And it goes like this: I'm a family member of a GM employee in Kansas City, Kansas. I'm saddened at the short-sidedness of the union in this matter. The past promises of retiree medical insurance for life along with job guarantees are slowly driving the big three U.S. automakers into the ground. What good will it do for the union to promise these benefits today if in five to 10 years, they declare bankruptcy and go out of business? What happens then?

Micheline Maynard, what do you think of that autoworker family member who seems to think this strike is not a good idea?

Ms. MAYNARD: Well, I have a lot of sympathies for the family members of autoworkers because these were jobs that essentially guaranteed you a middle-class lifestyle, sometimes without even having a high school degree, and they were jobs that were handed down through generations. But I used to cover the airline industry. And I covered six bankruptcies. And I saw what happened to airline workers during those bankruptcies. They lost retirement health care. They lost many of their benefits. And there are airline workers who have to take two and three jobs just to make a living. And so I'm watching this situation in Detroit, you know, with alarm to be honest.

BROOKS: Well, let's take a call from Bob(ph) who is calling from Anderson. And Bob, I understand you were on the picket line last night?

BOB (Caller): Yes, I was.

BROOKS: Tell me what's going on and your take on the situation?

BOB: Well, I worked at the Fort Wayne truck plant, Local 2209. And I worked last night from eight to twelve, supplying firewood to the guys on the lines. We - nobody really wanted to go on strike. I mean, this is a - it seems like the issues are that General Motors didn't want to negotiate in good faith with our representatives and they felt no choice but to call us out. And we were warned two weeks prior to that we may end up going out and we - they called it off. So General Motors kind of knew that we were ready to go.

BROOKS: And how do you personally feel about this? You said you didn't want to go on strike, but do you agree with the decision to go out on strike right now?

BOB: Yes. And one of the reasons is, it's not just for myself, it's for the retirees. I have neighbors who are retired General Motors and they're counting on their health benefits and their retirement funds to get them through until they no longer live. But, you know, it's - they're worried because they don't want to see what happened with Caterpillar happen with General Motors, with the retirement, the VEBA.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. But…

BOB: And if you are not aware of what happened with Caterpillar, of course, they went with the VEBA and their funds dried out and the retirees have no health benefits.

BROOKS: Well, Bob, a moment ago, I read an e-mail from a family member of a GM employee in Kansas City who is concerned that this kind of - that the kind of guarantees are slowly driving the big three automakers into the ground. And what good will it do for the unions to promise these benefits if these companies aren't around in five to ten years? Any merit in that concern?

BOB: That's a good concern. But the thing is that these are the same promises they've made for the last 40 or 50 years. And the competition with Nissan and Toyota and Honda is not something that's materialized in the last two or three years or since the last contract, it's something has been going on since '75 to '80 when we had the oil crunch. They - General Motors failed to put some vehicles on the market they were competitive with what they were - the competition was putting out on us, and that's something we can't control as workers. We just do what we're told. Build what we're - what's put out in front of us and do the best job we can.

And I'm going to tell you what, working on the line - people that I worked with, the people working in the plant I work in, we build some of the best pickup trucks in the United States. And we take pride in a job that we do. And some of the comments I see on the blogs about lazy UAW workers is without merit, and the people that write these things have not been in a final assembly plant probably in the last five to ten years to know what they're talking about.

BROOKS: All right. Bob, I want to thank you for calling in and good luck to you.

BOB: Thank you.

BROOKS: All right. Let's go to Dorothy(ph). She's calling from a suburb of Flint, Michigan. Hi, Dorothy.

DOROTHY (Caller): Hello.

BROOKS: I understand your husband is striking out.

DOROTHY: Yes, he is. My father is UAW member. And my husband is. And this is our second time because he happens to be at the plant that struck in '98, the one plant that went on a local issue. So we've lived through this before. And I feel strongly that people have a misconception about UAW members. We are both college educated - University of Michigan people. Our daughter's in college. We would like to see, you know, it's not just greed, we would like to see other people raised up to a level of benefits and care across the country. Not - you know, the whole health situation is no just the UAW's problem; it is this country's problem. And, you know, there are articulate people - just because our husbands get dirty at work, it doesn't mean they're not educated.

BROOKS: Hmm. And what about the strike itself, are you a strong supporter of what the UAW is doing?

DOROTHY: I am a supporter that we have to go to the table and negotiate in good faith. And if they're coming in and slapping down - you know, suddenly, they want to close plants. They're talking, you know, things they weren't talking about before. Then there comes a time you have to - you know, the line in the sand has been drawn and you have to stand up, and that's what we're doing. And I'm absolutely proud to do it, and we are prepared. People think that you don't prepare for this sort of thing. It's for your contracts. We can go six months, nine months. The money is in the bank because we, you know…

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

DOROTHY: …we're not - you have to be prepared for these things.

BROOKS: Sure. Well, Dorothy, thanks for the call. I really appreciate it.

DOROTHY: Thank you.

BROOKS: And good luck to you.

DOROTHY: Thanks.

BROOKS: That was Dorothy calling from - just outside of Flint, Michigan. Micheline Maynard, give me a sense of how strong the union is today? I mean, is this something that the union, in your view, can do? I mean, you mentioned that its, you know, its numbers are way down than a while ago. Do they have the leverage to pull this off?

Ms. MAYNARD: Well, the UAW is a very wealthy union. There is something like $880 million in their strike fund. So if you think about it, people on the picket lines who show up for picket duty, get about $200 a week from the union. They could go several months. And in fact, other unions will pull together to support the UAW on this. You know, the UAW performs a role in the labor movement. It isn't played by other unions. It's a union that got gains for its members that other unions weren't able to. It has a lot of political clout. And I think that this is a sort of line in the sand, not only for General Motors but for the UAW.

BROOKS: We're talking to Micheline Maynard. She is the Detroit bureau chief of The New York Times. And we're talking about the UAW strike. And we're asking folks on the picket line to call in at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Jeff(ph), who is calling from Ohio. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hello.

BROOKS: What's on your mind?

JEFF: Yeah. I'm a truck driver. The company I work for hauls mainly for GM and Delphi. And all the stuff I've heard on air about UAW members talking about how they - what they do helps the rest of this economy when - due to the fact that their striking, I've already been told from dispatch that I probably won't be working next week. And while these guys are standing out on the line collecting $200 a week to do nothing, I - with the holidays coming up, because of them, will probably be broke as hell for months to come now.

BROOKS: Well…

JEFF: I would just like to thank them for what they do to our economy.

BROOKS: Okay. Jeff, I appreciate the call.

And Micheline Maynard, there's Jeff in Ohio, talking about sort of a ripple effect of this strike. Is that something that we're going to hear more about?

Ms. MAYNARD: Well, I think it is something we'll hear more about. We're already hearing about General Motors plants up in Canada that are being idled because the parts from the United States can get there. The Teamsters Union said yesterday that they would not work behind UAW picket lines. And those are the folks that transport cars to the dealership. So there'll be some car haulers who will be out of work as a result of this. There'll be cafes across from the plants, there'll be people who work in the towns where these factories are, you know, where people will not go shopping maybe this weekend because they are on strike pay now. So, there will be something of a ripple effect, it's true.

BROOKS: Okay. Let's go to Eddie(ph) who's calling from St. Louis. And, Eddie, I understand you're going to be on the picket line tomorrow.

EDDIE (Caller): Yes. But what I wanted to address was how we got into this situation in the first place.

BROOKS: Sure.

EDDIE: And that is when after World War II, you saw the rest of the world going into socialism. There was a socialism developing in the United States, which was cut short in the 1920s, and of course World War II, and the Red Scare. And if we had just gone with the traditional health care system that the rest of world is enjoying now, if they're trying to tie workers into their corporations and force them to, you know, stick with one company in order to enjoy getting pregnancy or, you know, or any other health care benefits, then we wouldn't be in this predicament that we are today. And, you know, it's now General Motors, which you know, one of the people who pushed for this system in the first place, is now saying, well, we made a mistake. So now, UAW, we need you to pick up or fix the mistake we made 50 years ago.

BROOKS: Okay. Eddie, thanks for the call. Let's go to John(ph) who is calling from Richfield, Ohio. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Oh, hi. How were you doing?

BROOKS: Very well. Thank you.

JOHN: I'm at autoworker. I don't work for General Motors. But I'm concerned with the success that the industry has had in portraying this as being caused by the other workers, and in portraying these companies as being broke. For example, Chrysler had a - like 12 consecutive profitable quarters. Then in the last quarter of '06, they overmanufactured 150,000 cars intentionally. They had them parked everywhere in Detroit - parking lots, in malls, and everything. Then they advertised the big loss. And then, from there, it was portrayed as our fault.

They were forced to admit that, although they didn't lose that much money, that was - the figures weren't correct. And they're just successful in doing that. It didn't - it wasn't put in the Cleveland paper about - I mean our local - well, we used to have a (unintelligible) paper, they're gone now. They didn't even show that in the first quarter of '07, thirteen hundred salaried employers split up a hundred million bucks in bonuses. This goes down to the local level here, they get that.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: They just portrayed us as being unfair for wanting to maintain our hospitalization and benefits.

BROOKS: Okay. John(ph), well, I appreciate the call and good luck to you.

Micheline Maynard, pick up on John's point. Is that - does he have a fair point in your view? I mean, are the autoworkers being sort of unfairly portrayed here by management or…

Ms. MAYNARD: Well, I think there's been an effort for years in Detroit to blame the UAW for some of the problems that Detroit finds itself in. And I always say that there are two signatures on every contract. And if the companies had so much trouble affording these benefits, they should have thought very hard over the years about agreeing to them. But, you now, the UAW always has that lethal weapon of a strike. And in this case, they've actually used it.

But I do think that 15, 20 years ago when the Japanese automakers were starting to make inroads, if there had been an effort to sit down and look at the contract and say, you know, let's adjust this, then they might not be in this predicament. But unfortunately, the contract that we have in place today is essentially what we've had in place since the 1950s.

BROOKS: Hmm. How long can the UAW afford to stay out and how long can GM endure a strike of this kind?

Ms. MAYNARD: Well, I think that both of them could easily afford a strike of about a month. I think after that, GM runs into a problem because we have the start of the new model year in October, the 2008 model year. And, you know, people pulled off from buying cars when a company has struck. They sat on their wallets in 1998. General Motors never recovered the market share that it lost during that strike. And I think in the case to the UAW, there does come a point your - you strike to make a point, does the point diminish after a month or so? Especially now that we have Japanese auto plants in the United States that don't have unions.

BROOKS: Micheline Maynard, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ms. MAYNARD: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

BROOKS: That's Micheline Maynard. She's the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times. She joined us today from our bureau in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington.

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