A New Fire Burns for the UAW

Striking GM workers in Rochester New York (Zach D. Roberts)

ROCHESTER, NEW YORK – A GM worker chucks wood into the fire barrel on the picket line as a Monday Night Football game blares from an iPhone. Workers huddle to protect themselves from the cold as they watch the game. 

“It’s bone-chilling cold,” says Brendan Green, a middle-aged African-American worker in her first strike. 

While temperatures drop as the strike at General Motors enters its second month, workers say a new sense of solidarity is burning inside of many members. 

Despite the cold weather, Green says she’s enjoying her time on the picket line. 

“I’m on vacation,” says Green. “I’m feeling good about being out here. I’m trying to get out what I’m trying to get out here, so I don’t mind being out here in the cold.” 

Autoworkers say that the strike has changed something. During the recession, many GM workers were willing to make concessions to keep the company afloat. However, now, after GM played hardball by cutting off health insurance to striking GM workers and their families, things have changed. 

“Nobody ever forgets what you do their children,” says African-American GM worker Gene Izzard, a father of four. “And that doesn’t mean we won’t forgive, but we won’t ever forget.” 

“People are starting to realize more and more that we are families, but when the UAW began it was just not about bringing us together for a paycheck, it was more involved in our communities, being involved so far as families and bringing us together as one under that same umbrella,” says Izzard. 

“It says United Autoworkers, but it’s really about United Families out here,” says Izzard.  

“Before the strike, we had about 20-25% of the membership that would show up for a union meeting. After the strike, we got 99.9% of the membership showing up for meetings, and now everyone knows where the union hall is,” says Izzard as he laughs.

 “Not one person in this plant doesn’t know where that hall is now,” says Izzard. “So, when I tell you I’m excited, I’m excited about just that alone.” 

The process of the strike has been a valuable tool for educating many GM workers about the importance of the union.

“I love a full house,” says Izzard. ”It feels a lot better now when you see a lot more people in there 

“It’s fun. You get to hear so many different questions from so many different people,” says the UAW veteran. “I don’t care if it just to ask just one question; there is no such thing as a stupid or dumb question because this is how you learn; this how you get people more involved.” 

As many strikes come to an end as the UAW and GM engage in around-the-clock bargaining, a sense of renewal in the union is felt among union members. A sense of unity is also felt among union members, especially after the hardball tactics of GM. Many hope this sense of unity and renewal will breathe new life into the union. 

“It’s scarred us, it scarred us psychologically, and no one is gonna walk up in here after the strike is over and feel the same way,” says Izzard.

About the Author

Mike Elk
A Sidney-award winning labor reporter, Mike Elk is the founder of Payday Report and also covers labor and immigration for The Guardian. In 2015, he was illegally fired for union organizing as Politico’s senior labor reporter and used his $70,000 NLRB settlement to start Payday. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh He can be reached at Melk@PaydayReport.com

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