FLINT, Mich./DETROIT (Reuters) - Willie Elzy has been readying for a possible strike against General Motors Co for months and, pointing to a parking lot full of freshly built pickup trucks, he says it’s clear the automaker has been preparing too.
“We’ve been getting ready for a strike because we want GM to treat people fairly,” said Elzy, 64, waving a sign saying “UAW On Strike” outside the No. 1 U.S. automaker’s engine plant in Flint, Michigan, on Monday. “GM knew this was coming and they’ve been stashing new trucks all over the county so they can keep selling while we’re on strike.”
At midnight around 48,000 U.S. hourly workers at GM represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) headed for the picket lines after labor contract talks reached an impasse over healthcare benefits, wages, profit-sharing and the use of temporary workers on Sunday.
The union and GM restarted bargaining on Monday.
GM has relatively high inventories of its high-margin vehicles, but the strike is expected to shut down all of its North American facilities quickly and could hurt the U.S. economy.
Most of GM’s profits come from the U.S. market.
Like many others on the picket line in Flint or outside the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant Monday morning, Chaz Akers, 32, of Ferndale, Michigan, said he wants he wants temporary workers to be hired full-time.
“I work right across from a temporary employee who’s been there for two and a half years,” said Akers, who has worked at GM 3-1/2 years. “I install the passenger side headlight. He installs the driver side headlight. I make more money than he does. I have better health insurance than he does. It ain’t fair. It ain’t right. If you’re going to pay people to do a job, pay them all the same.”
Akers and other workers outside the Detroit plant, which does not have product allocated beyond the end of the year, said getting another product for the plant is not enough if GM does not address the disparities in worker pay.
U.S. automakers use temporary employees, who are paid less and receive fewer benefits, to be more cost-competitive versus their Asian and European counterparts with non-unionized plants in the U.S. South.
The mood on the picket lines in Flint and Detroit at the start of the widely anticipated strike was good-humored and morale among picketers was high. Most drivers passing by honked their horns to cheers from strikers under a gray, cool fall sky. Outside the Detroit plant, a large red city fire engine did the same and turned on its emergency lights.
“We stood up to help GM through bankruptcy, we made concessions and we’ve built good product for them,” said Marty Chovanec, 61, who was hired at GM’s Flint truck plant at the age of 19.
“We’ve been patient and we haven’t had a raise in 12 years,” he added. “Now that GM is making record profits, we deserve a cut and a fair share.”
Harrison Bowyer, 50, showed up to show his support and to picket in Flint even though he is not scheduled to be on duty until Friday.
“GM works the crap out of temp workers and then throws them away, so I’m fighting for jobs for future generations” he said. “No one walks out on a paycheck for no reason, but as much as it’s going to hurt us, if the strike lasts a while, it will hurt GM more.”
The last time the UAW struck against GM, in 2007, the strike was over in two days. A more painful strike occurred in Flint in 1998, lasting 54 days and costing the automaker more than $2 billion.
While workers on the picket lines said they hope the strike is over quickly, they said they have been socking away cash to help make ends meet. Union strike pay for workers is $250 per week, a fraction of their normal wage.
Outside the Detroit plant, Dawn Bryant, 39, of Detroit, whose husband works at a GM plant in Romulus, said she took a temporary job on the assembly line about six months ago because she felt it would lead to a full-time position.
“If this goes on for weeks, how will we survive?” she said. “No one could live off $250 a week. It’s just not possible.”
Bryant added, however, that it is a struggle earning about $10 an hour after taxes and health care premiums, and said GM should give her a path to full-time employment.
Outside GM’s Flint engine plant, Eric Cooley, 44, said everyone loses in a strike.
“But when the company is making billions and billions of dollars, it’s only fair to give us a little more,” he said. “It’s what I call the American way.”
Reporting By Nick Carey and Ben Klayman; Editing by Dan Grebler