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GM Just Took Away Our Insurance, But It Can't Stop Our Strike

"We are damn mad. They have abused our trust, especially when unions are under attack in our country right now."

A General Motors worker holds a picket sign after United Auto Workers Local 440 workers joined a national labor strike against GM in Bedford, Indiana on 9/16/2019.

A General Motors worker holds a picket sign after United Auto Workers Local 440 workers joined a national labor strike against GM in Bedford, Indiana on 9/16/2019. (Photo: InTheseTimes)

Just after midnight on September 15, nearly 50,000 members of The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) walked off their jobs at 33 General Motors (GM) plants across the Midwest and South. For two days, workers have been picketing against GM’s dismal wages and two-tier contracts. Steve Frisque was among them. Frisque is a full-time union steward and committee lead at the GM parts plant in Hudson, Wisconsin.

When asked why all 74 of his fellow union members decided to go on strike, Frisque said the issues are the same in Hudson as they are at GM plants around the country: a rise in temporary workers, the growing cost of health insurance, and anger over the automaker’s perceived lack of appreciation for the employees and members of the public who Frisque says bailed the company out just ten years ago.

GM doesn’t appear to be taking the strike lightly. On September 17, the company effectively canceled its payment of health insurance premiums for all striking workers. The company said in a statement, according to Reuters, that it is standard practice for “some benefits to shift to being funded by the union’s strike fund.” But workers were quick to denounce the move as a scare tactic aimed at crushing the work action. UAW officials say they are reviewing GM’s decision, which will amount to limited health care coverage for striking workers.

In These Times spoke with Frisque about what it’s like to work for GM, why workers are walking out, and how morale is on the picket lines.

Sarah Lahm: Tell me about your work at GM.

Steve Frisque: I am a GM employee and was hired around 1986, originally at the Janesville, Wisconsin assembly plant. I spent the first 21 or so years of my career there, with GM. Of course, that plant closed down at the end of 2008. 

I knew the writing was on the wall, so I actually transferred up to the Hudson facility in 2008.

Sarah: Has the threat of plant closures been a constant companion of your time at GM?

Steve: That time in Janesville was really the only time I’ve had to deal with it. I jumped ship a little early and sort of got the pick of where to go, and I chose Hudson because it was close. My wife and kids still lived in Janesville for quite a few years after I moved, just because we couldn’t sell our house because the area was so depreciated when GM left. The housing market just took a dive, then, and we couldn’t get rid of the house.

So I worked up in Hudson during the week and drove home on the weekends until 2014, when my wife and daughter moved up here.

Sarah: What do you do at the Hudson plant?

Steve: When I first got here, I was just on the line, and then I was elected union president for three terms and served two, from 2011 to 2017. I did turn down the last term, because it just got to be too much. I was doing that job, plus I am the steward and first shift union committeeman. I was doing both jobs and traveling a lot, and it was impacting my family life. 

So now I am just the union steward. I am a full-time union employee and represent all employees on my shift, if there are any health and safety concerns or issues with management.

Sarah: What are the key issues for workers?

Steve: It’s basically the same as it is on the national level. We have temporary employees in our building, and they have really no benefits or path to full-time employment. We have converted quite a few of our temps to full-time employment. We have pushed that with our local management, and they’ve been pretty good at working on that with us.

The temp workers face long hours, not much pay, and minimal benefits, including no vacation time. That’s our issue. They are right alongside us on the line, doing the same job, and they should be compensated in the same way. 

Sarah: Do you see any connection here, with temp workers, to overall concerns about the gig economy, on the one hand, and union-busting on the other?

Steve: Yes, we do. GM did send out a letter today, saying that payment for our health care would be terminated immediately, even though it was supposed to go until the end of the month. They are using scare tactics, making people worried about how they’re going to make it.

We are also hearing that at big plants like in Flint and Arlington, GM is planning on busing in what we call scabs into the building to try and do the work. It does look like almost a union-busting type of plan at this point.

Sarah: What do you think of GM’s position on the strike?

Steve: GM’s offer of a 2% wage increase is an insult. We gave up much more than that when they were going into bankruptcy. Then, we voluntarily gave up our cost of living increases with the idea that once GM got back on its feet and was viable again, we would get them back.

But now, we are at the point where we will actually be losing money every month on health insurance with GM’s latest offer. That’s our reward for GM making four years of profits, and the people have had enough. 

So we decided, “Hey, we’re going out.”  As of right now, all 74 of our people are out on the picket line. That includes temps. No one has any plans of crossing the line, and everybody pays union dues, even though Wisconsin is a right-to-work state and they don’t have to.

Everybody in our plant has voluntarily decided they are going to pay union dues, which is nice because it keeps people together. There’s no division.

Our temp workers and janitors are represented by our local, so they are out on the picket line with us. No one is in the building except for managers.

Sarah: Do the temp workers and janitors get the $250 per week in strike benefits, too?

Steve: Yes, they do. As long as they show up for their shift on the picket line, janitorial staff and the temps will get strike pay and UAW International, with their union dues, will be picking up our health insurance premiums for as long as the money lasts.

Sarah: How has morale been?

Steve: Morale has been stupendous. Better than what we could have hoped for. It’s scary for all of us. There’s always concerns, when you are dealing with new employees who haven’t been around the union in their lifetime and don’t really know what a strike entails. But they’ve been out there marching with us since 11 o’clock on Sunday evening. 

They’re showing up, even when it’s not their shift, and bringing food for their union brothers and sisters. And it’s just been fantastic. Everybody’s coming together and supporting each other.

Sarah: Do you see any end to the strike in sight?

Steve: It’s hard to say. My personal opinion is, I think it’s going to go on for a bit. The sooner we get an agreement, the better, but I know there are a lot of sticking points, with temporary employees, the cost of health insurance, and some of the closed plants. 

If I was a betting man, I’d say this might go on for a bit longer than most people would like. If it was settled in a few days, that would be awesome, because these people want to work. They want to go to work and do their jobs. 

Sarah: This is about more than benefits and wages.

Steve: The workers just want to be acknowledged that they are a big part of why GM is where it is today. If it wasn’t for their employees and the taxpayers of this country—I don’t want anyone to forget that—the taxpayers bailed GM out. The workers on the floor appreciate that--words cannot express how much.

We sacrificed for GM, and now it’s time for GM to share the wealth. They paid essentially no taxes last year, and they act like they’re broke. They have made record profits for the last four or five years.

When their CEO Mary Barra is making over $20 million and they say they don’t have enough money to pay their employees on the floor, then I have an issue with that and I think all of us do.

We are making less today than we were in 2000, if you factor in the cost of living. We have had minimal raises for the last 20 years, and I am talking about the legacy employees. I am not even talking about the temporary, or two-tier, employees that are making a lot less. And there’s no more pensions. That stopped in 2008. There are always cuts, cuts, cuts, even though GM is making record profits.

Sarah: Would you advise your kids to work for GM?

Steve: No. My father worked for GM, so did my grandfather. My father was the president of UAW Local 95 in Janesville, and my grandfather was one of the first GM employees back in the 1920s, so this runs in my blood. 

I have a long history with the company, but I told my kids to go to college and get a degree. These jobs aren’t stable anymore. The days of having a full-time job and being able to take care of your family are gone.

Sarah: What are some of the key goals of the strike?

Steve: Our key point is to keep our health insurance at the status quo, or close to it. It’s about getting these temporary employees a path to full-time employment. It’s not about us. We don’t need a huge pay increase. We are looking out for the younger people, who aren’t making as much money as some of us, to have better wages and benefits and come up and be with us.

That’s what the union was formed on. Everybody does an honest day’s work and gets an honest day’s pay. It shouldn’t be three or four different tiers. It should be, we’re all doing the same work, we should all be getting the same pay. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what sex you are. The union was formed on equality, and that’s what we’ve got to get back to.

Sarah: Do you have any thoughts on the corruption scandals that have hit UAW?

Steve: Yes. Pardon my language, but we are damn mad. They have abused our trust, especially when unions are under attack in our country right now. For them to do this, and wipe out the good name of our union and the trust of the members. If they’re guilty, I hope they get the maximum penalty.

I know these guys personally. I have had dinner with them at conferences. I know who they are, or thought I knew who they were. And, for them to do this to the membership, I hope they get the max. I want a full investigation, and so do my people on the floor. The impropriety needs to stop, and we need to get back to who we are supposed to be working for--the membership.

We have to get back to fighting for the people on the floor, so that they can get back to taking care of their families.

Sarah Lahm

Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English instructor. She blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

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