The Electric Scene at General Motors as Workers Walkout in Rochester

At the picket line in Rochester, New York, when the UAW workers went out on strike. (Zach D. Roberts).

ROCHESTER, NEW YORK – Shortly after midnight, the scene outside GM’s Rochester Operations is tense with excitement, as onlookers wait for the plant’s first strike in 35 years to begin.

“I am way too wide awake right now,” shouts one General Motors security guard to another.

Then, suddenly, hundreds of workers begin to burst out of the front gates, high-fiving and celebrating their decision to walk off the job over General Motors’ demands for concessions.

“I think this is long overdue,” says Rachel Drummond, a third-generation African American GM worker. “We come to work every day, we work harder, and we deserve better than what we get.”

The workers are part of a group of over 49,000 General Motors workers at 33 manufacturing plants and 22 parts distribution warehouses nationwide who went on strike Sunday night. That includes 46,000 autoworkers and 3,000 union-represented janitors with Aramark, a concession and facilities management company, who clean up five GM plants in Ohio and Michigan.

Workers are upset about GM’s demands for concessions, as well as GM’s closing of plants in Lordstown, Ohio, and Warren, Michigan, while the company continues an expansion overseas. They want an end to a “two-tier” wage system put in place after the auto bailout, and a path for temporary workers to become permanent employees.

The strike at General Motors is the first since 2007, and the first at its Rochester plant since it was made a wholly owned GM subsidiary during the auto bailout (it previously was part of Delphi, a key parts supplier). Workers are fired up for their first picket line, and the mood is festive as they tell jokes and embrace.

At the front of the picket line outside the Rochester plant is Dan Maloney, president of UAW Local 1097. A 35-year employee of General Motors, Maloney was on layoff for eight and half years from GM’s Rochester plant. During that time, he was forced to move his family around to work at GM’s facilities all over the country.

“I worked at Framingham Assembly out in Boston, Inland Fisher Guide in Syracuse, and Tonawanda Engine plant in Buffalo,” says Maloney. “I had to move the family around a lot, different school districts for the kids. My family made a lot of sacrifices.”

Ford and Fiat Chrysler plants are not affected by the strike, as the UAW has decided to continue working at those plants while negotiating with GM. The GM resolution could serve as a template for bargaining with the rest of the industry.

Now that GM has flipped to profitability following massive concessions by the UAW and an approximately $50 billion taxpayer bailout, workers say that they are outraged that the company continues to outsource work overseas. Maloney’s plant in Rochester has been downsized from nearly 6,000 hourly workers when he started three decades ago to just a little over 800 workers today.

“On the heels of the American taxpayer bailing out the General Motors Corporation, now they are expanding in China and Mexico while closing plants in the U.S. It’s very hard to take,” says Maloney.

After years of broken promises by GM, union members at GM say they are no longer willing to take concessions.

“The sacrifice did not equate to security, so why do it,” says Maloney. “Every four years, we are a little bit weaker and a little bit smaller, so if we didn’t take them on now, you weren’t gonna be any stronger four years from now or in a better position.”

With union popularity on the rise, the strike is likely to galvanize massive public support, as the wave of teachers strikes did more than a year ago.

The strike at GM could put Trump in a box on whose side to take. When campaigning for office in 2016, Trump pledged to bring back manufacturing jobs to the Rust Belt, and he has chastised GM CEO Mary Barra in the past for plant closings. However, Trump has taken to Twitter in the past to blame UAW leaders for those closings as well.

The strike also has the potential to revive the UAW, which has been marred in a series of corruption scandals. Recently, five top UAW officials were convicted for accepting bribes from auto employers, in exchange for concessions at the bargaining table, and the FBI raided the home of UAW President Gary Jones in August.

Many union-ambivalent workers cited the corruption scandal in UAW’s recent unsuccessful attempt to unionize Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant in June. The union lost by a mere 29 votes and many anti-union workers interviewed by Payday Report said they were skeptical, given the corruption scandal, that the UAW would stand up for them.

A successful strike at General Motors could persuade UAW members that the union is willing to take significant risks to fight on behalf of its members, potentially opening the door to more organizing in the anti-union South, where many auto plants have migrated.

“We are the architects of showing a better way, showing the light and that’s what I think would be really beneficial if UAW was successful,” says UAW staff representative Mark Barbee.

At General Motors’ Rochester plant, where 99.5 percent of workers voted to authorize the strike, Maloney says that his union is willing to go the distance to stand up against General Motors’ demands.

With the company and the union very far apart on agreeing to a new contract, it’s unclear how long the strike will go on. However, on the picket line in Rochester, workers seem to be excited.

“This is a story that is being played out through corporate America, and we are drawing a line in the sand,” says Maloney.

As I interview Dan Maloney, all of a sudden a portly middle-aged worker begins sprinting with a “UAW strike” sign to block a “scab” member of management from leaving a nearby parking lot exit.

“Wow, I have never seen him move that fast except for a donut,” chuckles Maloney. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

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(Story co-published with the American Prospect)

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 Chattanooga in 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement for being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and regulars walks picket lines with his parents and two golden retrievers. He can be reached at Melk@PaydayReport.com

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