Forty-six thousand General Motors employees are heading back to the picket lines for the fifth day of a national strike the likes of which GM hasn’t experienced since before its government-subsidized bankruptcy more than a decade ago.
The strike by the United Auto Workers union hasn’t yet imposed crippling economic costs. But if negotiations between the UAW and GM remain at a standstill, both union members and the company will suffer.
Already, international and local businesses that depend on GM for business are starting to feel the impact. At least one local trucking company has all but shut its doors, according to the Detroit News, and GM Canada announced Wednesday it will temporarily lay off 1,200 employees at its Ontario plant. It’s estimated that GM lost between $50 million and $100 million in operating revenue on the first day of the strike.
Blue-collar workers, however, will bear the brunt of the pain. Strike pay is $250 a week for GM employees. Compare that to GM’s top production wage of $30 per hour, or $1,200 in a 40-hour week.
“Next week, whatever shine there is begins to wear off and the drudgery sets in,” Marick Masters, the former director of labor studies at the Detroit-based Wayne State University, told the Detroit News. “People start wondering, ‘When am I getting out of this?’”
But was there ever a “shine” to this strike? GM workers were urged into it by the UAW on the pretext that GM was not bargaining. This was supposedly a fight for higher wages, more flexible hours, better healthcare, and job security. But this strike has nothing to do with GM’s refusal to go to the bargaining table. If this was about the well-being of GM workers, the UAW would have accepted the offer that GM proposed Sunday night, before the Monday walkout.
The history of labor unions in the U.S. is typically told as a struggle between labor and capital. More astute observers notice many more fissures. Most importantly, the interests of the union bosses are often not the same as the interests of the workers they purportedly represent. In this case, the UAW has a not-so-hidden ulterior motive to stay stubborn. Contract fights might yet arise with Ford and Fiat Chrysler. Nobody wants to show their hand before even starting a negotiation. So UAW knows that what might be the best deal for GM workers could weaken the union’s leverage in its other negotiations.
“Solidarity” thus becomes an excuse for union bosses to turn down the best deal for the GM workers they represent. It’s like a sports agent negotiating one contract with an eye to his other clients’ negotiations. It’s unethical.
There’s another, even more sinister motivation of the UAW bosses that deserves scrutiny: creating a distraction from the legal issues that currently threaten to explode their organization.
An ongoing federal probe into the UAW’s corruption has resulted in 10 indictments of top union officials. Several more officials, including UAW president Gary Jones, are still under investigation for possibly abusing their power, using workers’ dues for personal luxuries, and strong-arming auto executives with shakedowns and kickbacks. It looks like the federal government is moving toward charging union leaders under federal racketeering laws. Is it any wonder that union members have so little confidence in the officials who are supposed to represent and fight for them?
The UAW is desperately trying to distract from its scandal and hang onto its power. And the best way to do that is to force a walkout right now, to create the terms of the strike, and then to use all of this as leverage in negotiations that the UAW would never have otherwise cared about.
It’s only a matter of time before union members decide they’re done being pawns in this self-interested union’s game.