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General Motors strike not likely to be resolved anytime soon, experts say

UAW leaders want to show the rank and file they're "tough guys," while management wants to avoid being "locked in."
Image: BESTPIX - United Auto Workers Begin Largest National Strike Since 1982
Members of the United Auto Workers picket Monday at the GM assembly plant in Flint, Michigan.Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

On this General Motors and the United Auto Workers agree: The strike that sent 50,000 workers out on the picket lines Monday is not likely to be over anytime soon.

Both sides are talking, but both sides are bracing for a long and costly fight as workers dig in on their fight for better wages, health care benefits and job security, union representatives and auto industry experts said.

“It will go on as long as it’s going to take to achieve our bargaining goals,” Chuck Browning, the UAW’s Region 1A Director, told MSNBC. “The bottom line is this company has been extremely profitable for a long period of time. Those profits have been made off the sweat and the hard work of our members, and our members want a fair agreement.”

In a terse statement on its website, GM said “negotiations have resumed.”

“Our goal remains to reach an agreement that builds a strong future for our employees and our business,” it said.

Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan and an auto industry maven, said the leadership of the UAW needs to take a stand against GM not just for the rank and file — but for its own survival.

UAW President Gary Jones and other top union officials are currently under investigation by federal authorities for allegedly embezzling member dues and blowing thousands of dollars on everything from fancy vacations and golf equipment to $400 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne.

“I think the union leadership wanted a strike because they’re under attack, and when you feel like you could be losing your grip on power the age-old tactic is to go to war,” Gordon said.

And because they need to be seen as taking a hard line against GM management, union negotiators won’t seek a swift solution even though rank-and-file workers will start feeling the financial pain almost immediately.

Workers will get $250-a-week in strike pay, which is far less than the top production pay of $30-an-hour, or $1,200-a-week, he said.

“The union leadership cannot look to its members as if they’ve caved. This has to look like a really tough battle,” Gordon said. “The leadership does not want it settled tonight. … The leaders need a really bitter battle to show that they are tough guys fighting for their members.”

Union spokesman Brian Rothenberg disagreed in no uncertain terms.

“The UAW GM Council made up of local union leaders voted unanimously to go on strike over issues impacting their lives,” he said. “This issue is about their pay, benefits, worker safety, health care and quality of life. Anything said to the contrary is insulting to members who (are) striking and sacrificing for their future and their families’ future.”

Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research said the corruption scandal that has ensnared top UAW leaders “does damage the trust between leadership and membership.” But the roots of Monday's strike go back to the 2007 contract when labor, after a two-day strike, agreed to make painful concessions to help ensure that struggling General Motors survived.

“They gave up holidays, made concessions on wages and other things to save the company,” Dziczek said of the UAW. “Since then, there has been 10 very profitable years. It is hard for the company to plead poverty because they have been posting healthy profits.”

GM, the largest automaker in the U.S., made $27.5 billion in profits over the last four years of the current contract.

But the uncertainty facing the auto industry is the reason why the UAW is trying to get the best possible deal for workers now — and the reason GM is resisting.

“The union members want guarantees and security, and the company does not want to be locked down,” Dziczek said.

In Washington, President Donald Trump said he hopes the General Motors strike is a short one.

“I have a great relationship with the auto workers,” he said. “I get tremendous numbers of votes from the auto workers. I don’t want General Motors to be building plants outside of this country. As you know, they build many plants in China and Mexico.”

But Dziczek said Trump has added to the uncertainty facing the industry by moving to roll back the fuel economy standards set by the Obama administration and by threatening to impose tariffs that could substantially increase the costs of buying a new car.

“There is uncertainty on every front,” Dziczek said.

The strike began after Terry Dittes, the UAW’s vice president, alerted union members that negotiators hadn’t been able to agree on wages, health care benefits, temporary workers, job security and profit sharing.

“This is about standing up for us, the families and the communities that are affected because this is not just about our members,” Dittes told NBC News. “This is about a bigger picture.”

“While the company has an obligation to structure its business the way it sees fit,” he added, “we have an obligation to represent our members. Now is our time.”

GM called the UAW’s decision to walk off the job “disappointing,” saying in a statement that it made a “fair offer” that included “best in class wages” and “nationally leading health care benefits.”

Gordon said what the workers want more than anything is job security.

“That’s what they’re bargaining for,” he said. “Sure they want more pay. But what they really want is assurances their jobs will still be there.”

Thousands of GM workers have gotten pink slips in recent months as the company has closed assembly plants and component factories as part of a restructuring.

Workers know, Gordon said, there is likely to be more pain because all the economic forecasts are projecting a downturn in auto sales.

“They saw what happened when the Lordstown plant was closed,” Gordon said, referring to the sprawling GM plant in Ohio that shutdown in March after 50 years of production. “A lot of workers are worried they’ll be the next Lordstown.”

The UAW has over $721 million in its strike fund, The Detroit News reported. The newspaper estimated the union would “burn” through $11.5 million of those funds every week it is on strike, a figure that does not include the cost of health care benefits.