Forty days on strike with UAW Local 167 | Michigan Radio
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Forty days on strike with UAW Local 167

Oct 25, 2019

On her first day of strike duty, Cindy Holmes looked up at a clear blue sky and saw a bald eagle soaring over the picket line.

“It was flying really low, and it was just circling around, soaring, it was just doing it’s thing, you know what I mean? It was like, ‘Ah, I’m cool.’”

It seemed like a promising sign on the first day of what would become a historic strike.

Today, as the final ratification votes on a tentative deal come in, it appears the strike is at its end. 

It has been 40 days since the nearly 50,000 UAW members walked out of their jobs at General Motors and hit the picket line. It is the longest strike against GM in half a century. 

This is the story of the strike from the point of view of one plant, represented by one local union hall. General Motors Components Holdings is located in Wyoming, near Grand Rapids. It's not one of the big assembly plants. It's a parts plant. And here, all production workers make a lower tier wage. 

They went out on strike in a massive show of solidarity with the union. But today, as they wait for the final word on an end to the strike, many of the workers feel let down. 

Excitement, then fear

In the first week, lots of workers were excited. It was chaotic, and new.

By day 8, reality was setting in.

"This is the first strike for all of us, really," says UAW Local 167 president Willie Holmes (no relation to Cindy Holmes). "And a lot of our workers are brand new. So they really don’t know. And they are panicked. And they are scared.”

Read more: Solidarity in age of tiered wages and temp workers: "Everyone has to be taken care of"

On day 12, workers missed their first paycheck.

Willie Holmes walks out to the picket line, past a credit union and a Mexican bakery. The plant sits on a corner, with several entrances. Workers picket all of them. Outside, a large sign says “General Motors Components Holdings.”

The plant in Wyoming is part of General Motors Components Holdings. Those last two words make a big difference.
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Those last two words make a huge difference.

“Our plant is not a traditional GM plant,” he says. “We are Components Holdings. We’re a subsidiary of GM. Or, we like to call ourselves like the stepchild of GM.”

Being the stepchild means the 800 workers here, and at the other three GMCH plants, don’t get what everyone else gets. All the production workers here make a lower wage than what workers at traditional GM plants make.

Tiered realities

The UAW didn’t always accept tiered wages. For generations, the union fought so that workers who did the same job would make the same money. But in 2007, with GM facing bankruptcy, the union agreed to pay some workers less.

"The two tier doesn't work, because it's divided us," says UAW member Milton Cross.

"It didn't work," says Milton Cross, a worker Holmes introduces me to on the picket line. "The two tier doesn't work. because it's divided us. It's lessened our quality through the whole General Motors." 

"I think we all want to be one wage," says Lisa Czeher, another worker. "I think that's what we all want." 

Tiered wages created tiered realities for workers. That’s especially true here, at this GMCH plant in Wyoming. And there’s one other way this plant is different.

Workers here make parts, for engines and axles. But they don’t just make parts for GM.

They also make Toyota parts. And the Toyota workers – about 130 of the 800 UAW members here – did not go out on strike. They kept working in the plant, literally crossing the picket line each day.

Adam Underhill was one of them. He says the situation was a catch-22.

“The Toyota product does help keep this plant open," he says. Yet I believe that true solidarity is a hundred percent. You know, nobody crosses the picket line.”

True solidarity. It is what the UAW says it’s all about. But here, now in 2019, everyone can see the cracks in that ideal. There are temp workers and seniority workers. There are low tier wages and high tier wages, production and skilled trades, Toyota parts and GM parts, GM Components Holdings and traditional GM.

It wasn’t always like this.

Willie Holmes knows because he saw it growing up.

Willie Holmes, president of UAW Local 167, on the picket line.
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

“I have six sisters and six brothers," he says. "So there’s 13 of us, right? And my mom worked right here, at this plant right here. And I was thinking to myself, there is no way in the world that she could have raised all us kids without a job like this.”

Years ago, GM had multiple plants in this area, and thousands of workers. Now it’s just this one plant. Workers are supposed to be happy they have a job here at all.

The union is trying to hold on.

And Willie Holmes thinks a story like his family's is still possible for a GMCH worker here.

“If they’re treated right," he says. "If they’re treated fairly and paid fairly, you can raise your family.”

"It's really bad."

It’s day 25 of the strike. A food pantry has opened in the hall. Lunch and dinner are served every day by volunteers, mostly retirees from this local.

"You can't be prepared for something like this," says Yerlin Carranza on day 25 of the strike.

Yerlin Carranza stands by the wall, with a baseball hat on and earbuds dangling from her neck. She’s a single mom with three young kids and for the past two weeks, she’s been surviving on strike pay. That’s $250 per week.

“You can’t be prepared for something like this because, one, you don’t know how long it’s going to go for," she says. "And, two, you truly don’t understand how you’re affected until you’re affected by it, you know. I can’t even afford a babysitter right now.”

Her rent bill, she says, is $1,600 a month – $600 more than she’ll make with the strike pay. She says her sister helped cover it for last month. She’s also called Consumers to try to work out a deal on her utilities.

And she has to worry about food.

“It’s literally rice and beans," she says. "And I’m not trying to be the sappy story but it’s rice and beans and like, this type of stuff, you know you go to places where they help you … it’s bad, I’m sorry but it’s really bad.”

Carranza stares out across the union hall. Many of the workers here are hurting. They started this strike talking about GM’s record profits. Now was the time for them to get their fair share.

But it was costing them.

The deal

On day 31, there’s news.

A statement comes out from the union. A tentative deal has been reached. The union releases a summary of the agreement.

Inside the big room of the union hall, a couple retirees sit around, hearing the news second-hand from the offices at the front of the building.

All the headlines outside the hall are focused on the signing bonus workers would get in the tentative deal, and it’s a big one: $11,000 for seniority workers, $4,500 for temps.

The union hall for UAW Local 167 in Wyoming.
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

But inside UAW Local 167, everyone is focused on the section of the summary for GMCH. It says these workers will stay at a lower wage than the rest of GM. Their highest wage will be about $10 less per hour than the highest wage at the regular plants.

"All we get is what they decide on, you know?" says Local 167 member Anthony Bennett. “It’s nothing new. It’s nothing new at all. We continuously get burnt in the contracts. We do.”

For the deal to be finalized, the UAW’s rank and file will have to vote to approve it. Willie Holmes knows how the members of Local 167 will vote. The question he has — on Day 36 of the strike — is how the other 40,000-plus members will vote.

“But a lot of members aren’t happy," he says. "I think this vote is going to be really interesting. Just like this strike was historic, I believe this vote’s gonna be historic.”

The vote

On day 39, the workers of UAW Local 167 vote.

Cindy Holmes is out on the picket line again. She wouldn’t say how she voted. But she wasn’t happy.

“We started out with a point to make," she says, "and I feel like it didn’t really make any difference."

"I feel like it didn't really make any difference," says UAW Local 167 member Cindy Holmes.

I talked to more than a dozen members of UAW Local 167 since the tentative deal was announced. Only one was a definite yes vote.

Even Yerlin Carranza, with three kids to support on her own, who still doesn’t know how she’ll pay this month’s rent, wants the deal to fail.

“I’m praying it doesn’t pass. Obviously we’re all praying it doesn’t pass.”

Solidarity 

Those prayers, it now seems, have not been answered. To Carranza, the GMCH workers got left out.

I ask her how she feels now about solidarity. 
 

"Being honest?" says Yerlin Carranza, "They forgot about us."

She pauses. Takes a deep breath. 

"That one's a tough question to answer," she says. 

On the picket line, she says there was solidarity. At this Local, there was solidarity. 

But from the larger UAW? 

"Being honest? They forgot about us," she says. "They got something that was a benefit to them, but not to us, though. So I don't think there was solidarity." 

At UAW Local 167, 60 percent of members voted against the contract.

Despite that, it appears there’s enough support at the other GM plants to pass it, and end the strike.

By Monday, 43 days after the strike started, the workers at UAW Local 167 could be back on the job.