{child_flags:featured}{child_flags:topical}{child_flags:editors_pick}GM workers walk the line

{child_byline}George Myers

Kokomo Tribune

and The Associated Press{/child_byline}

General Motors workers continued their strike today in Kokomo and across the nation, seeking what the United Auto Workers union believes will be a better future for industry employees.

Picketing at the GM Component Holdings plant’s Goyer Road entrance midday were nine people comprising a mix of auto workers and retirees.

On the other side of the plant, along Indiana 931, was a slightly larger group, also raising blue-and-white “UAW ON STRIKE” signs and waving them at the constant stream of drivers beeping their horns in support of the strike.

Surrounding picketers were chairs, food, bottled water and backpacks full of supplies. One picketer was heard joking he might “get fat” if he hung around the picket line much longer because of all the food dropped off in support of striking workers.

More than 49,000 members of the United Auto Workers went on strike today against GM, bringing more than 50 factories and parts warehouses to a standstill in the union’s first walkout against the No. 1 U.S. automaker in over a decade.

Workers left factories and formed picket lines shortly after midnight in the dispute over a new four-year contract. The union’s top negotiator said in a letter to the company that the strike could have been averted had the company made its latest offer sooner.

The letter dated Sunday suggests that the company and union are not as far apart as the rhetoric leading up to the strike had indicated. Negotiations resumed today in Detroit after breaking off during the weekend.

But union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said the two sides have come to terms on only 2% of the contract. “We’ve got 98% to go,” he said.

One of the GM employees stationed on Goyer Road – UAW Local 292 members have been assigned shifts at picket sites and been joined by retirees hoping to boost current workers – was Justin Kennedy, a health and safety rep at the Kokomo plant.

Kennedy, in his fifth hour picketing after arriving around 6 a.m., said the strike will last “until we’re given a fair contract.”

“We’ll stay out here as long as we need to,” he said. The Goyer Road group received its own shoutout today on the Local 292 Facebook page, which noted picketers “have to deal with management going past them all day long. Now THAT is a job!”

Kennedy declined to discuss specifics about the strike but said the cause behind it is worth a temporary loss of pay. Workers who picket receive just $250 of strike pay a week until the UAW strike fund is depleted.

“I’m willing to make that sacrifice. … [It is] short-term sacrifice to get a fair deal,” he remarked, highlighting the support Local 292 has received from other area unions, including Local 685, which has opened its hall on Hoffer Street to striking GM workers.

“We’re just doing what we do as a union,” said UAW 685 President Rick Ward in comments to the Tribune, referencing the “We are One” unifying slogan heard at the UAW Special Bargaining Convention in Detroit this spring.

The slogan, which inspired chants at the convention, means automotive unions need to stick together, said Ward.

“We’ve got four plants here at Chrysler, just like that, where we’re just one local. And even though it’s a GM plant, they’re union members and they need somewhere to set up, and our membership is glad to help them. That’s about it.”

“We support each other,” added Kennedy about Kokomo’s unions.

Local 292 Shop Chair Greg Wohlford did not return a request for comment but was on camera following the start off the strike for Channel 13, WTHR, early Monday morning outside the plant.

“The only thing I’m asking for all the people that we’re supporting out here is that GM just come back to the table,” said Wohlford, referencing the company’s struggles during the Great Recession.

“We supported you guys when you were in bankruptcy and the only thing we’re asking is for a fair contract, and we just want you guys to come back to the table and support us like we supported you.”

Also stationed late Monday morning on Goyer Road was Roxanne Hyden, who retired a decade ago from the city’s GM plant after starting in January 2000, when there were around 7,000 workers at the site, she said.

There are now approximately 330 hourly and 90 salaried workers at the plant, according to the GM website.

Hyden, who was joined on the picket line by her husband, Robert, worked on the line building injectors during her time at GM. Kokomo was her family’s fifth plant after stints in Iowa, Texas, West Virginia and Kansas.

“Moving to keep our jobs. Plant closings, plant cutbacks. So it’s not real new. It’s been going on, but it needs to stop,” she said.

Asked what she believes is behind the current strike, Hyden said: “The pay is unfair. They want to take benefits; that’s not fair.”

Hyden said it’s been tough emotionally to watch the Kokomo plant continue to dwindle, specifically when it comes to cutbacks involving friends and people she cares about.

“A lot of us retired, my age frame. But these young people need good jobs,” she noted, saying to help the situation GM could “maybe quit paying their execs so much” and start “spreading the wealth” and keeping jobs in places like Kokomo.

Still, Hyden expressed hope that Kokomo, despite labor unrest and employment trends seen at places like the GM plant, can maintain its position as one of the country’s pre-eminent blue-collar cities and stave off the pitfalls already facing manufacturing-reliant communities across America.

“I hope that they can. I really hope that they can. Because they deserve it. It’s a good working crew here,” she said.

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{child_related_content}{child_related_content_item}{child_related_content_style}More Information{/child_related_content_style}{child_related_content_title}Here are the main areas of disagreement:{/child_related_content_title}{child_related_content_content}

• GM is making big money, $8 billion last year alone, and workers want a bigger slice. The union wants annual pay raises to guard against an economic downturn, but the company wants to pay lump sums tied to earnings. Automakers don’t want higher fixed costs.

• The union also wants new products for the four factories GM wants to close. The factory plans have irked some workers, although most of those who were laid off will get jobs at other GM factories. GM currently has too much U.S. factory capacity.

• The companies want to close the labor cost gap with workers at plants run by foreign automakers. GM pays $63 per hour in wages and benefits compared with $50 at the foreign-owned factories. GM’s gap is the largest at $13 per hour, followed by Ford at $11 and Fiat Chrysler at $5, according to figures from the Center for Automotive Research.

• Union members have great health insurance plans and workers pay about 4% of the cost. Employees at large firms nationwide pay about 34%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The automakers would like to cut costs.

Source: The Associated Press

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George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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