Drivers along Ind. 931 were confronted Thursday with a sweeping pack of striking General Motors workers and supporters lined up off the busy road’s east side – chanting, shouting for honks and discussing the ways they believe the company has shorted employees.
Gathered were GM workers from the United Auto Workers Local 292 – in its fourth day of striking outside the company’s Component Holdings plant – and a mix of union counterparts ranging from the powerful UAW Local 685 to railroad employees situated between Lincoln Road and Boulevard Street.
Most picketers carried or wore “UAW ON STRIKE” signs, while others highlighted their desire for “fair wages” and “affordable health care.”
Adorned in red shirts, many in the crowd joined a series of chants: “What do we want? Fair contracts! When do we want it? Now!”
Or: “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union,” and, in a lyrical request to passing drivers, “Beep, beep, GM’s cheap!”
Sitting in front of a collection of lawn chairs was a substantial fire pit and behind the chairs a Porta Potty. Providing a respite from the heat were event tents offering sunscreen, drinks, snacks and towers of Harvey Hinklemeyers pizza boxes.
It’s the latest, and largest, chapter in Kokomo’s portion of a strike that involves 49,000 UAW members and more than 30 factories in nine states, mostly in the Midwest. It is the union’s first walkout against the No. 1 U.S. automaker in over a decade.
Local 292 Shop Chair Greg Wohlford said the support given to striking workers – not only by other unions but from a community that has provided so many donations Local 292 leaders asked on Facebook for food and supplies to be dropped off at the Local 685 hall because picket lines could no longer contain them – has been overwhelming.
“It’s one of those things that you’re hopeful the community comes together and supports you the way they have, but it’s just unbelievable how the outpouring has come,” he said.
Wohlford said he was unsure how long the strike will last, saying that while the union is willing to picket as long as needed to get a fair contract the strike does have a major effect on many families in Kokomo.
“We will stay out here as long as it takes, but I do hope it gets resolved soon because families have bills to pay, they still have to put food on the table,” he remarked.
This is pretty incredible. A huge group lined up along 931 facing passers-by, with nearly every driver beeping their horn in support of workers. pic.twitter.com/TttUYnhjkC— George Myers (@gmyerskt) September 19, 2019
A UAW statement distributed Thursday afternoon said that while “some progress has been made, there are still many of our Memberships’ issues that remain unsolved.”
One example of that real-world impact came when GM decided this week it will no longer pay health care costs for striking workers.
Instead, costs for COBRA coverage to continue health care benefits were shifted to the union’s strike fund, which already pays members $250 a week and had more than $750 million before the work stoppage.
The move was decried as “heartless and unconscionable” by Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, and reportedly came as a surprise to UAW leadership. She said the decision “could put people’s lives at risk.”
The company has downplayed the controversy in statements to media, while a UAW spokesman said GM’s decision came without warning and left families “at risk of being suddenly uninsured.”
“Workers aren’t going without insurance,” countered GM spokesman Dan Flores, as quoted in the Detroit Free Press. “But they have to enroll in COBRA and there is a process to do that and if they don’t know that process, they can call the GM Benefits and Service Center.”
Health care has moved to the top of the list of issues people on the Kokomo picket lines are worried about.
Susan Roberts, an electrician with Local 292, said she has had to cancel two physical therapy appointments for her 12-year-old daughter. She expects to nix a third.
“They took our insurance away instead of letting it go through the end of the month. … To me, that was a slap in the face. So now she has to do without her physical therapy until we can get the union insurance. They say it’s going to be retroactive but I have to pay for it up front and then try to get my money back,” she said.
Roberts – also describing sacrifices like the $5-an-hour pay cut trade workers took when GM was in bankruptcy during the Great Recession – said the company “instead of trying to step forward on a good foot, I think it was a slap in the face. Honestly, I really didn’t think they’d do that (eliminate health care).”
Roberts, who has been in Local 292 for 20 years and parked in the grass when she started at the GM plant because all the parking spaces were filled, added: “Let us keep what we have and leave us alone. Give us business.”
The decline of Kokomo’s GM plant has become a common theme during the strike.
While at one point the plant sported thousands of workers, it now has a single gate and a bevy of open parking spots.
“I hope they bring new business here, because we build quality product. They know we build quality product. And I want to stay here for the community. I want it to be here when I retire for my kids or somebody else’s kids,” said Roberts.
“These factories are what keeps this community going.”
Wohlford echoed that message.
“I’m still hopeful, even though our numbers have gone down drastically, I’m still hopeful that we can get that turned around,” he said, noting he’s been told by retirees that at one time the staffing total was above 13,000.
There are now approximately 330 hourly and 90 salaried workers at the plant, according to the GM website.
“We bailed out General Motors in 2008. They received a big bailout from us. And it’s been a slap to the American taxpayers’ face and the UAW that they’ve shut down four GM plants this year and now they’re starting production of the Blazer in Mexico rather than putting that in one of the plants they shut down,” said autoworker Ian Beaty.
Beaty – who also decried the treatment of temporary employees, some of whom have worked for GM for multiple years but don’t receive certain perks because they haven’t been boosted to full-time – lives in Kokomo but commutes a combined 144 miles each workday to a GM plant in Fort Wayne, working on the assembly line to install left-front headlights.
He worked for 12 years at the Kokomo plant before transferring in 2018 to avoid what he saw as the risk of being laid off since “General Motors has not brought any new work into Kokomo.”
But on a day that consisted of both frustration with GM and raucous excitement about the large turnout, one message was clear: It’s time to stick together.
“We’re all in the auto industry, so we’re all supporting our union brothers and sisters,” said Teresa Stewart, a member of Local 685 who works as an auditor at Kokomo Transmission Plant.
“Just like us, they haven’t had a raise in a while. [GM] is trying to change the benefits, and we don’t want any benefit changes. If anything, we want more. We want them to bring back everything that we lost in the bankruptcy. We should be getting all that back.”
She added: “We should be getting the cost-of-living back, we should be getting our Christmas bonuses back. We should get better property-sharing checks than what we’ve been getting, because they have made tons of money. I’m pretty sure that’s what [GM workers] are looking for. They just want to make their job is secure and we’re here to hopefully help them do that.”