How GM Pits Younger Workers Against Older Workers

Two veteran GM workers talk outside of GM's Rochester Operation (Zach D. Roberts)

ROCHESTER, NEW YORK – As the GM strike enters its third week, 40-year-old African American Jerry Bradley throws a small red football around with his 6-year-old son as Buffalo Bills broadcasts blare from IPhones on the picket line.

“It’s a gift and a curse. I work second shift so I don’t get a lot of time to spend with my kids cuz I’m at work Monday through Friday during the main hours that they would be home,” says Bradley. 

Times have been tough for Bradley, who was converted just this year from temporary employment to permanent and makes only $17 an hour. 

Many had been hopeful that General Motors and the UAW were close to an agreement as the UAW had announced on Friday that significant progress had been made. 

However, on Sunday, GM announced that contract talks have “taken a turn for the worse.” In addition to failing to improve their offer on job security, GM is now taking back its offer to re-open two idled facilities as electric truck manufacturing plants; dashing the hopes for a speedy deal of many younger, more poorly paid workers like Bradley with fewer savings. 

“It’s getting to a point now where everybody is wondering what’s taking so long,” says Bradley. 

It’s Bradley’s first time in a union and the strike has been a learning experience for both him and his family. Often, his 6-year-old son will see the strike being covered on the morning news and ask his father questions about why he’s on the picket line. 

“I try to explain it to them as best as I can that we need better medical care so that you can go to the doctor and that the big thing is the wage increase so that we can support our families,” says Bradley. 

Jerry Bradley is one of many young, underpaid General Motors workers who is learning the hard lessons of solidarity on the picket lines. 

For years, General Motors tried to pit younger workers, who are on a lower second-tier pay scale, against older legacy General Motors workers, making much more. Often, young temporary workers, who aren’t even on the second-tier, are pitted against older workers in some of the most manual, labor-intensive jobs. 

Kevin is a 62-year-old General Motors employee who pushes a 300-pound cart with spare parts to provide support to workers on the assembly line. 

“There is a lot of joint pain from twisting and moving carts around. It’s hard to stop once you get in motion, so your ankles are sore, your feet are sore from twisting,” says Kevin, who declined to give his last name.

“I am at the age where you start to have arthritic type concerns just naturally because of aging, so it’s a lot harder for the older guys than the 21-year-old guys just starting out in the job,” says Kevin. “They don’t feel the pain yet, but what they don’t know that once they abuse themselves to that point, there is no going back.”

As a result, Kevin says that younger employees, particularly temporary employees hoping to make permanent status, are often willing to work faster and cut corners on safety to impress supervisors. 

Making the pressure even more intense is that in recent years, General Motors has discontinued the practice of promoting supervisors from within the rank-and-file of the union. These types of supervisors, who came out of the UAW and had more people skills in how to constructively manage teams of workers, were seen as being more respectful of UAW workers. 

Instead, General Motors has shifted to hiring industrial engineers, straight out of college with no experience in the UAW. 

These college educated industrial engineers, have been known to sit there with stopwatches and time how quickly workers are moving. Feeling no sense of comradery  or the UAW helping them as rank-and-file workers, many workers complain that these college-educated supervisors are eager to please GM management by pitting temporary workers, with no union protections, against legacy UAW members. 

“It’s almost a form of age discrimination because what they are threatening you with is there is a 21-year-old that is going to take your place right now,” says Kevin.

Worse, by General Motors paying temporary workers only $16 an hour which reduces savings, temporary workers are much more eager than older better-paid workers, who have savings, to return to work. 

“The ones that are starting out at the very bottom are going to be disheartened over time. There is no question,” says Kevin. “They need to support themselves so they can understand what they are up against.” 

“They don’t quite feel the way we feel,” says 62-year-old GM employee Gregory Langmade. “They don’t quite understand the magnitude of what is really going on, not as we do.” 

“This is the first time that they have ever been in a strike. I don’t think they ever been in a strike or actually lost their job like I lost my job at Delco,” says Gregory Langmade, whose previous Delco plant was closed and whose job was shipped to Juarez, Mexico. Langmade says that he is willing to go as long as possible to force the company to commit to keeping manufacturing work in the U.S. 

“We aren’t only standing for ourselves; we are standing more for the younger generation for what’s gonna happen for the future for our children, the children here in America,” says Langmade. “If we don’t stand up and try to hold our jobs here, there won’t be anything after a while.”

To help younger workers hang on, older workers like Kevin are reaching out more  to educate them on how the company is trying to pit temporary workers against older legacy workers.  

“It’s a good experience for the young people to go through something like this,” says Gregory Langmade.

While GM is hoping that they can divide younger and older workers and pit them against one another, workers have used the opportunity of being on the picket line to form new relationships. 

“We are a union, and this is just what we are gonna have to do,” says Jerry Bradley. 

“We need to stay strong and follow our hearts and do the right thing,” says Kevin.

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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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