Tensions and tempers rise on the picket lines as General Motors strike enters day three

Three days in, negotiators appear to be no closer to reaching a deal to end the labor action.
Image: United Auto Workers Continue Large National Strike
General Motors workers gather on the west side of the GM Powertrain Plant on Sept. 18, 2019 in Toledo, Ohio.J.D. Pooley / Getty Images

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By Shamar Walters and Corky Siemaszko

Tempers have been flaring on the picket lines as the General Motors strike entered a third day Wednesday and union negotiators and management appeared to be nowhere close to reaching a deal.

“Say it loud, say it proud, two-seven-six,” workers could be heard chanting on video footage seen by NBC News as a pickup truck trying to enter a GM facility in Arlington, Texas on Tuesday was briefly blocked by placard-carrying strikers from United Auto Workers Local 276.

The confrontation was over almost as quickly as it began, but it was the clearest sign yet of rising tensions as the UAW continues to press the nation’s biggest automaker for job security, better wages and health care benefits.

Meanwhile, GM has dropped the health-care plans for the roughly 49,000 workers who walked off the job early Monday and effectively halted production at plants around the country.

“We understand strikes are difficult and disruptive to families,” GM said in a statement. “While on strike, some benefits shift to being funded by the union’s strike fund, and in this case hourly employees are eligible for union-paid COBRA so their health care benefits can continue.”

UAW spokesman Jason Kaplan called the decision "disappointing" but confirmed the emergency strike fund would pick up the tab.

"It's unfortunate that General Motors is using current health benefits that over 47,000 GM workers and their families depend on as a way to leverage unfair concessions," Kaplan said.

GM said the strike was already starting to take a toll on production at the company’s Canadian plants and that it plans to temporarily lay off 1,300 workers at its final assembly plant in Oshawa, CNBC reported.

"Once again, instead of General Motors touching their profits, they're hurting their own works," Kaplan of the UAW said.

Outside the GM plant in Kansas City, Kansas, union workers were not deterred by the company's hardball tactics or the 90 plus degree temperatures.

“We’re not going anywhere until we have a solution that satisfies everybody,” UAW Local 31 member Herb Taylor told the local NBC affiliate. “People (have) got coolers and we've got water coming. We've got tents out. We've got umbrellas out and anything to keep them out of this heat.”

The Detroit Free Press reported that GM’s opening gambit was a two percent wage increase for the first and third years of a four-year contract and two percent lump sum payments in the second and fourth years.

The UAW, which wants a wage increase that will offset any health care coverage cost hikes, said thanks but no thanks, the paper reported.

The last time GM workers went on strike was in 2007 as the Great Recession was looming and it was over in two days.

This time, experts said, union workers don’t just want better pay and benefits from a company that has made $27.5 billion in profits over the last four years of the current labor contract — they want job security.

In recent months, GM CEO Mary Barra has handed out pink slips to thousands of workers and closed four U.S. assembly plants as part of a restructuring that GM said saved the company $1.1 billion in the first half of 2019 and $700 million in the second quarter of this year.

But there is a widespread consensus among union workers that GM’s leadership is demanding too much sacrifice from the rank and file and not enough from top management, experts said.

“For many workers, the pay gap between Barra and the workers symbolizes the actual gap between the haves’ and the have nots’ in the U.S. and the disappearance of many career ladders that have made the American dream an increasingly unattainable dream for millions of working families,” Vanderbilt University sociology professor Dan Cornfield, who studies the plight of U.S. workers in the changing economy, wrote in response to questions from NBC News.

When GM was struggling, union workers made sacrifices to keep the company afloat, Cornfield said.

“Certainly the recent Great Recession, during which unionized automobile workers made major concessions in wages and benefits (such as health insurance) has not been forgotten and very much is in the demands of striking UAW workers who now, during more prosperous times, demand to share in the wealth that appears to be hoarded by executives,” Cornfield wrote.

Barra is the highest paid auto executive in the country. She makes $2.1 million in salary and has a total compensation package of nearly $22 million. By contrast, the typical GM assembly line worker, toiling 40 hours a week, makes between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, a UAW spokesman said. Those figures do not include overtime and other benefits.

Barra has also been getting steady raises over the years. Back in 2013, Barra’s annual salary was $750,000, records show. Her salary doubled the next year to $1,587,803, climbed to $1,750,000 in 2015 and hit $2 million in 2016.

Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on the auto industry, said calling for cutting the pay of the boss is “always a crowd pleaser.”

“But it doesn’t get the workers what they really want,” Gordon said. “The key issue for the rank and file workers is this: Is my plant going to be allocated a new product to build and stay open. What they are afraid of is plant closures in America and increased production in Mexico.”

That sentiment was echoed on the picket line in Kansas City.

“This strike is about families,” UAW Local 31 president Clarence Brown said. “This strike is about American people having jobs in America.”