By MARK HARRIS
FLINT, Mich. — When you drive into Flint, Michigan, on Interstate 69, the first notice of the town’s unique history comes when you see the signs for “UAW Freeway,” as the stretch of interchange that wraps around the town is called. I was looking for the General Motors (GM) plants where locals 659 and 651 were on strike, but having no idea exactly where I was, I decided to take the first exit and just drive a bit until I found my bearings. It didn’t take long.
As luck would have it, a right turn down the first major intersection led me straight toward the huge GM metal fabrication plant where on June 5 some 3400 workers walked off the job, sparking what has come to be a virtual shutdown of the world’s largest automaker.
The plant includes GM’s bus and truck operations and is unquestionably the largest factory I have ever seen. Right across the street sits the much more modest facility of Local 659. But the union local’s unassuming appearance belies its momentous history, as the permanent sign on the marquee outside the building, “Home of the 1937 Sit-Downers,” is quick to remind you.
Here it was 61 years ago that workers put down their tools and occupied the GM factories for 44 days. Their action led to the first union contract in the auto industry and sparked the mass unionization of industrial workers throughout North America. And despite the setbacks of recent years, Flint remains very much a union town.
As I drove through town, I saw UAW flags attached to the roofs of cars the way people in towns might otherwise advertise their allegiance to the local college football team. The sign out front of the Days Inn motel, where I stayed, proclaimed, “We support UAW Locals 659 and 651.”
Nearby, a 40-foot balloon of a gorilla donated by a local company sat, holding a sign that says, “Don’t Monkey with the UAW.”
Talking with strikers on the picket line takes place against a backdrop of constantly blasting car horns, as passing motorists proclaim their solidarity, and I worry about whether my tape recorder will pick up the conversations I’m having.
The local paper reported residents near the Delphi East parts plant were complaining it had been days since they’d gotten a good night’s sleep because of the round-the-clock honking. But, for the most part, even the sleep- deprived were only anti-noise, not anti-union.
The 3400 UAW members striking the metal-stamping plant, along with their 5800 brothers and sisters at GM’s Delphi plant on the other side of town, hope through their action to send a message to GM: Keep our jobs here. Period.
GM says global competition demands new manufacturing standards. But what, as many on the picket lines will tell you, does competitiveness mean if it leads to lost jobs, economic insecurity, and decimated communities?
Unlike in 1970 when the UAW struck the automaker for 67 days, the 223,000 workers who now work for GM constitute less than half the number working back then. In Flint, 44,000 jobs have been lost — and it shows.
Drive around for a while and it’s not hard to find neighborhoods with a look of bygone prosperity. Residential neighborhoods of single-family homes, at one time undoubtedly symbols of a thriving local economy, now show tell-tale signs of family economies stretched to the limit. Much of Flint looks poor.
Enough of broken promises
The mood on the picket line two weeks into the strike is upbeat but not unrealistic. The strikers know they face a tough and maybe prolonged battle, but there is the sense that more caving in to GM’s insatiable concessionary appetite will only lead to more misery.
The gate captain at one picket site told me that when the decision was made to strike, there was a kind of pervasive relief in the air, as if at last the truth about how things are would now no longer be downplayed or denied.
“GM’s claim that they are committed to investing in their American operations is belied by their actions,” says UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker, a view endorsed by almost every person I spoke with.
“They continually threaten our locals with being sold or outsourced out of existence. They make commitments to invest and, as in the case of Local 659, they renege on these commitments in lieu of new demands that were not part of their original commitments. The end result is the same; America and communities like Flint come last in their strategy.”
One picket, an older African American man whom I spoke with and who told me he had worked in the plant for 41 years, seemed to capture the thinking of most of those on the line.
“In my opinion, GM is basically looking for cheap labor,” he said. “They’re taking our work to these Third World countries like Mexico, China, or Indonesia and paying people practically nothing. We’re out here because we want good jobs, good jobs for those coming along, and I mean jobs that will last more than a couple of years.”
He asked me if I knew that the top five executives at GM made $21 million in bonuses last year. “This has nothing to do with their stock options or salaries, that’s just the bonuses they paid themselves. Now, that’s a lot of waste, in my opinion. Really, I think they would be pleased, more than anything, if we just went back to work for $4 an hour. Then they’d be happy.”
As we talked, another striker stood by, listening quietly. “You know, in this plant here, we give them all that they want,” he finally interjected. “These are quality parts, too. To make the quotas they set, people are working through lunch, breaks; I mean, you really put out when you work here.
“Even though they’re making a certain percentage, they’re getting the quotas they want, they’re meeting their goals and they’re making a profit, it doesn’t seem to matter. They only want more and more. There’s just no end to it.”
“This is a war for job security”
I traveled down a half a mile or so to the other picket site at the stamping plant. I introduced myself to a younger worker, one of a sizeable number of African American strikers. When I asked him what he thought the public should know about the situation at GM, he echoed the earlier comment about the hypocrisy of top executives paying themselves multi-million-dollar bonuses while preaching hard times to employees.
“They’re competitive, all right,” he laughed, “at least when it comes to paying themselves. In my opinion, and a lot of other people’s opinions, this is a war with General Motors for job security down the road.”
As many workers will also tell you, GM has been sending a message of faltering loyalty to Flint for some time. Recently, the company began without fanfare to remove some dies from the stamping plant, claiming they were scheduled for repair when they were in fact being shipped to other plants.
“You can’t sit there and talk about bargaining in good faith, and in the same breath, take dies out of the plant, as they’ve been doing,” one woman told me on the picket line. “I mean, that was just wrong, and I think it shows that they weren’t willing to bargain in good faith. I’d like to know why we should trust them?
“The bottom line is there is just no sense of security,” added this eight-year GM veteran, her young daughter leaning against her as we talked. “I’ve been laid off three times, and the last time we lost our pick-up truck. It’s hard, you know, when you have a family.”
Last year, GM had promised to spend $300 million on new technology at the stamping plant. Instead, the company stopped the upgrade at $120 million, citing their sudden unhappiness with the “excess” overtime they’re paying, based on a quota system that compensates workers for each part they make.
GM says the quota system and the resulting overtime pay was a major factor in its claim of a $50 million loss last year at the plant. But, as one worker told the Detroit Free Press, “GM says it is losing $50 million. What that means is if GM could outsource the cradle business to an outside supplier, GM could make an additional $50 million in profits.”
Currently, GM plans to close the Buick City large-car assembly plant in 1999. Much of the Delphi Flint East plant, which includes the AC Sparkplug business, is also for sale. GM’s intent, according to some reports, is to construct a new plant in Mexico modeled on its Brazilian factory.
The UAW predicts GM is also likely to close its small-car assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. For Flint residents, another 11,000 jobs could be lost in coming years.
The global economy: a flailing club
There are no shortage of observers in the big-business media ready to argue that the UAW has no choice but to face the new rules of the global economy and all they entail.
“The UAW’s leaders have held on to their offices despite avoiding the duty of all responsible leaders: delivering and explaining bad news to constituents,” says Doron Levin, a writer for The Detroit News and Free Press (June 20, 1998).
According to Levin, GM’s current predicament is actually caused by their failure not to make more cuts earlier. GM must become a smaller company. The global economy demands it.
Levin bears this news as if he is only a detached and clear-eyed witness to a hard but objective reality. But his real bias leaks out when he adds that GM would be “negligent” to direct more of its capital into Flint, where workers appear to “loathe” the company that has taken care of so many of them for so long.
In other words, it would be a better world if GM just had what it deserves, a quiescent, forever grateful, and low-paid workforce. And if the UAW gets uppity and demands all sorts of outrageous perks, like job security and an actual future, then all the more reason to go where workers are more likely to know their (humble) place.
Jim Hightower, the former Texas commissioner of agriculture, remarks in his book, “There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos” (HarperCollins, 1997), that German factory workers are paid on average $6.50 an hour more than American workers, and they work 348 hours less a year. Hightower asks a good question: Why don’t we compete with that?
In a sense, that is what this strike is asking: Why can’t we make an economy that equates productivity with prosperity for workers and their communities? GM talks ad nauseam about the revved-up demands of global competition. The autoworkers ask: Competitive for who?
A vision of economic success skewed by class inequity and vanished dreams, dependent on slave wages in poor countries, is no vision at all. GM’s strategy of downsizing and outsourcing may further enrich a few top-level investors and executives, but for the people of Flint it translates into a more abbreviated version of the American dream — down and out in Middle America.
The ranks of the UAW think they can do better. Their strike is a stand for the brighter future their hard work should be creating. It is a stand for economic justice, as anyone who takes the time to talk to the strikers will learn. “I’ve worked for GM for 32 years,” said one picket as we talked under the shade of a tree. “I could retire right now. But I want to tell you, I’m going to stay out here if it takes 90 days or six months. Whatever it takes, I’m ready.”