As members of the United Auto Workers head into their third day of a nationwide strike, General Motors has cut off health insurance for the nearly 50,000 people on picket lines across the country demanding better working conditions and fair pay. The workers say GM continues to deny employees’ demands for better conditions and compensation despite leading the company to record profits following bankruptcy and a federal bailout. It’s the first company-wide strike against GM in 12 years. UAW had sought to have GM cover striking workers’ health insurance through the end of the month. In New York City, we speak with Steven Greenhouse, veteran labor reporter formerly with The New York Times. His latest book is titled “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.” His recent op-ed in The New York Times is headlined “The Autoworkers Strike Is Bigger Than G.M.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As members of the United Auto Workers head into their third day of a nationwide strike, General Motors has cut off health insurance for the nearly 50,000 people on picket lines across the country who are demanding better working conditions and fair pay. The news came Tuesday, just one day after UAW members kicked off the strike by walking out of more than 50 GM facilities. The workers say GM continues to deny employees’ demands for better conditions and compensation despite leading the company to record profits following bankruptcy and a federal bailout. GM responded by transferring the striking workers’ healthcare costs to the union. UAW had sought to have GM cover striking [workers’] health insurance through the end of the month. This is GM worker Steve Goralski in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
STEVE GORALSKI: We’ve got a company that had $35 billion in profits in the last few years. We’ve got temporaries that have been here over seven years and are still temporaries, and they’re asking for more temporaries. They’re moving our plants out of country; they’re taking them to Mexico and to China. And now they’re asking for concessions on our healthcare. I don’t know about you, but that’s the only reason I took this job. I used to have my own drywall company. I took it for the benefits.
AMY GOODMAN: Politico reported Tuesday that two top Trump administration officials were involved in ongoing labor negotiations and likely to side with the UAW. But GM and a White House spokesperson later denied the report. This is President Trump speaking about the striking workers Monday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I have a great relationship with the autoworkers. I’ve got tremendous numbers of votes from the autoworkers. I don’t want General Motors to be building plants outside of this country, as you know. They built many plants in China and Mexico, and I don’t like that at all. My relationship has been very powerful with the autoworkers — not necessarily the top person or two, but the people that work doing automobiles. Nobody’s ever brought more companies into the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s the first companywide strike against GM in 12 years. In 2007, GM workers walked out for two days.
Well, for more, we’re joined here in New York City by Steven Greenhouse, veteran labor reporter formerly with The New York Times. His new book is just out. It’s called Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. He’s also the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, his recent op-ed in The New York Times headlined “The Autoworkers Strike Is Bigger Than G.M.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Steve.
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Great to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, before we get into the history of the labor movement, which is really what your book is about, well, this is certainly one of the culminations of it, what we’re seeing today. Talk about what’s happening with UAW, what’s happening with the workers, why they went out on strike against GM, and what this means.
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The UAW made big concessions back in 2008, 2009, 2010, when GM went bankrupt. And the union, understandably, wanted to help lift it out of bankruptcy to save jobs, so they agreed to wage freezes and a two-tier wage structure. And GM has since become quite profitable. And GM is not offering a very generous contract, just a 4% raise over four years, according to the Detroit Free Press. And it’s moved a lot of factories to Mexico and China.
And the workers are saying, you know, “What gives? We, the workers, we, the U.S. taxpayers, saved GM. So why is it closing important plants in the U.S., like the Lordstown plant, while keeping plants running in Mexico that make the same thing?” So, they just — I think it’s basically a sense of “We helped you. We went the extra mile for you, GM. And now we want you to be fair to us.” It’s really a strike over fairness and being treated with the respect they feel that they deserve.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you mentioned the concessions they made back in 2009, '10, about this two-tier wage system, you actually explained last night in a forum that we were at that it's actually three tiers.
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What specifically does that mean, these tiers of wage systems?
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, back in 2009 during the bankruptcy, GM told the United Auto Workers, “We’re definitely going to close these plants, and these other plants, we’ll agree to open, but only if we get a two-tier wage system.” So, the top tier paid $29 an hour. They set up a bottom tier that ran from like $17 up to about $25. And then they’ve — now there’s this third tier, you know, of temps. And the temps make $15 an hour, and some of the temps have been there three and five years.
So, with all this concern about the increased precariousness of the economy and increased instability in jobs, you know, one of the focuses of the union, of the strikers, is, we’ve to get rid of, you know, these temp — I mean, we have to change these temp workers to make them permanent. It’s unfair they’re making just $15 an hour. They work side by side with people who make twice as much. And there’s a feeling —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Side by side often doing the same job, right?
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, doing — yes, doing the same job. And it’s part of the UAW’s saying, you know, “We’ve been good to you, GM. We want you to be fair and good to us.” Plus, the workers on the second tier want the gap closed with the top tier. They want to be moved up to $29, $31, very, very quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Ted Krumm, head of the UAW’s bargaining committee, speaking at a news conference Sunday night.
TED KRUMM: I want to be clear about something. This strike is about us. It is about standing up for fair wages, for affordable quality healthcare, for our share of profits and for our job security. We are standing with our brothers and sisters who are temporary employees and in-progression employees, who do the same work we do for less pay. We are united. We are strong. We are ready. We don’t take this lightly.
But General Motors needs to understand that we stood up for GM when they needed us. These are profitable times. We work hard to make this company profitable. And we deserve a fair contract, because we’ve helped make this company what it is.
We are standing up for us. Make no mistake: The strike is about the members in Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and throughout the great nation. We are fighting for the future of the middle class, and we want a fair and equitable contract. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Ted Krumm, head of the UAW’s bargaining committee, speaking at a news conference as they were going out on strike. If you could respond to what he says and also this latest move by GM not to pay the healthcare of workers? You retweeted today Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, tweeting about GM’s decision to pull healthcare for all benefits. She said, “A note to anyone who wants to use union members as a wedge to oppose #MedicareForAll: @UAW has one of the best plans in the country, but management can still use it to hold workers hostage. #M4A puts power back in our hands” — meaning “Medicare for All.”
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I wrote this book explaining that, you know, unions did an amazing job lifting workers, you know, last century, creating the middle class, creating the 40-hour week, making mines and factories much safer. But the past 20, 30 years, unions and worker power in the United States have gotten much, much weaker. I explain that it’s because corporations have really played super-hardball to weaken unions. Globalization has weakened unions. And we’ve seen the Republicans — you know, Scott Walker, most notably — trying extremely hard to weaken unions, especially public sector unions. So we’re at a point where worker power in the United States is, I argue, the weakest it’s been in many, many decades.
So, there’s a sense now that something is really broken. I mean, something is really broken. And, you know, corporate profits have been at record levels, and the stock market’s at record levels, but we keep hearing that wages have been stagnant for year after year. They’re going up a tiny bit now, but for the past few decades they’ve been really stagnant for most workers. And people say, “We have to fix this.”
And I think the reason we had the teacher strikes last year and the Marriott strike and the Stop & Shop strike and now the GM strike is they’re saying, “We’re not getting our fair share.” And as we just saw in the video clip, you know, GM had $8.1 billion in profits last year. Over the past three years, it’s had $35 billion in profits just from North America alone. And the workers are saying, “But you’re closing these plants, when we helped you keep them open? You’re offering us just a 4% raise over four years, just 1%?” that this is wrong. So, this, I believe, is part of this healthy burst of strikes where workers are trying to win back their fair share and flex their muscles.