About 48,000 workers at General Motors have entered their fourth week on strike. It is the longest national strike at GM by the United Auto Workers in nearly 50 years. Workers are seeking higher pay, protection of their healthcare benefits, greater job security and a commitment from GM to build more cars and parts in the United States. On Sunday, UAW officials announced they had rejected the company’s latest offer, saying negotiations had “taken a turn for the worse.” We speak with Steve Frisque, a striking GM worker and former president of UAW Local 722.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: About 48,000 workers at General Motors have entered their fourth week on strike. It’s the longest national walkout at GM by the United Auto Workers in nearly 50 years. Workers are seeking higher pay, protection of their healthcare benefits, greater job security and a commitment from GM to build more cars and parts in the United States. This is Steve Goralski, a striking GM worker 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: On Sunday, UAW officials announced they had rejected the company’s latest offer, saying negotiations had, quote, “taken a turn for the worse.” In a letter to union members, UAW Vice President Terry Dittes wrote, quote, “The Company’s response did nothing to advance a whole host of issues that are important to you and your families! It did nothing to provide job security during the term of this Agreement.”
We’re joined now by Steve Frisque, striking GM worker, former president of UAW Local 744 [sic]. He’s currently a union steward, joining us from a studio in Minneapolis.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Steve Frisque. Talk about the demands of the union. I mean, this is historic. It is the longest strike in nearly, what, half a century against GM.
STEVE FRISQUE: That is correct. Just to clarify that I’m from Local 722. But that’s OK, no problem.
Our biggest issues, obviously, you heard the gentleman there from Bowling Green touch on some of it. Moving work out of the country, the temporary workers, those are our two biggest issues right now, and also healthcare, which has become an issue since we went out on strike.
Ten years, 11 years ago, this General Motors was going out of business, and they were saved by two groups of people: their employees and, even more so, the taxpayer of this country. If it wasn’t for them, they would have been gone. We reopened our contract voluntarily and gave up a lot of stuff, cost-of-living increases. We took over retirees’ healthcare and benefits. That was an obligation of General Motors, and the UAW took that over to alleviate and hopefully bring them back from the brink of bankruptcy. So, we move forward 10 years, and they’ve made record profits for the last three years, of just over $35 [billion], and they have never given any of those things back to us that we voluntarily gave up.
Not only that, but they want to take more away now. They’re moving the work, like I said, out of the country, which should really irritate the taxpayer of this country, who bailed them out with the idea that we’re going to keep work here in the United States and have people work here and become productive members of society, and now we’re moving it out of the country. Obviously, earlier, the gentleman said, from Bowling Green, Mexico and China, those are the two biggest ones. In fact, China has more General Motors employees now than does the United States. This is our biggest issue.
And then the real top issue is temporary employees and how they use them, and there’s no path for them to come to full-time employment. Some of these assembly plants have had temporary employees on their rolls, like that gentleman said, for almost seven years. They make just over half of what legacy employees of UAW GM make. They have very few benefits, no vacation time off unless it’s preapproved. They have three unpaid vacation days a year, and they have to be preapproved. So, life happens — children get sick, weather, flat tires. These things happen in life, and these people live on pins and needles every day, just hoping something doesn’t go wrong, because if they — they can be dismissed. For any two minor shop rule violations, they can be dismissed, which means being late or anything else. So, it’s not right, when this [company] is making record profits, to treat their employees, who bailed them out and saved them, the way they’re treating their employees today.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Steve Frisque, over the weekend, there was some indications that there was progress in the talks, at least on issues like wages, but that apparently one of the big sticking points has been this issue of whether GM will bring back some jobs from Mexico to the U.S. Could you talk a little more about the impact of the GM production in Mexico? Because we often hear President Trump talking about how Mexico and China are stealing our jobs, but it’s really the multinational U.S. companies that are making decisions to go into places like China and Mexico for greater profits.
STEVE FRISQUE: Well, yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s cheaper labor. I mean, that’s the bottom line here. An auto worker in Mexico makes just under $3 an hour, and they’re not unionized. They’re not allowed to, basically, by its government control unions, and they really don’t have a say in anything. The biggest issue is, you know, I’ve had people say to me, “Why — you know, well, they’re working for a lot cheaper.” And my argument always is: “Are the vehicles any cheaper that are coming from Mexico?” They’re not. It’s just the profits are going up to the top. They’re not working with their employees, obviously.
If you look at Ford, Ford has, actually, a pretty good relationship with the UAW. In fact, the CEO came out a few years ago and said, “If it wasn’t for the UAW, Ford would have been bankrupt. They sacrificed and saved us in our darkest hour.”
We did the same for General Motors, but obviously they don’t seem to understand that, or they just don’t seem to think that that’s — they have to work with their employees anymore. And it’s very upsetting. These jobs were saved to keep them in this country, and now we’re moving them out. The last study that was done, Chrysler has 92% utilization in this country of their facilities, Ford had 82%, and General Motors was right about 70%. And I’ve heard that’s actually gone down even more now in this last year.
So, you look at the plants that are closing — in Lordstown, Ohio, Detroit-Hamtramck, we have a couple transmission plants, one in Baltimore and a few other in Michigan — and these people are out of work, or they have to — if they have enough seniority, they have to transfer. And that’s — people don’t realize what it does to families. I’m one of those people that worked in an assembly plant. I worked at Janesville Assembly in Janesville, Wisconsin, and that plant closed down at the end of 2008. I had to move to where I am now, Hudson, which I was lucky, because I’m not too far from home, a little over four hours. But I had to leave my wife and kids down there for almost six years, because we couldn’t sell our house, because the whole economy in that area just went under. It causes a lot of damage to families, a lot of divorces, fathers and mothers not seeing their kids. And they don’t seem to understand that, or they don’t really seem to care.
Like you said, on Saturday, it sounded like we were going to have a tentative agreement. It sounded really good. And then it went south overnight. So, we’re waiting. I guess GM came out with a secret proposal last night to the UAW. We do not know what the contents of that is yet. We’re going to wait and see what our leadership says. And hopefully we’re making progress forward again, instead of taking two steps back, like we did this weekend, so…
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let me ask you: In terms of the leverage that the United Auto Workers have, given the corporate America’s move to go to just-in-time production, when do you figure will be the time when General Motors will be forced to shut down its entire chain of operations as a result of the fact that it can’t get these cars produced by you here in the United States?
STEVE FRISQUE: Well, we’re already seeing some fallout down — they closed the Silao, Mexico, plant, which makes the Silverado and the Sierra. So that has been closed because of lack of parts. And now I heard their other major facility down there has had some shutdowns, too. So, it’s starting to have a trickle-down effect. I guess it’s coming to a point where GM’s got to make a decision on: Is it worth keep losing the money that we’re losing on a daily basis? Are we going to come out ahead or behind on this?
I really don’t believe that they — I think they misunderstood our resolve when we went out. I think they thought [they] could break us within the first two to three weeks. What this has really done is — what I’ve seen in my local facility is it’s actually strengthened the resolve. People are mad. People are mad, and they’re willing to stay out as long as it takes, because, you know, we believe in what we’re doing. We believe that in this country the wealth keeps flowing up to the 1% and keeps going less and less to the 99% below. And we’re going to have two classes of people in this country pretty soon: the extremely wealthy and the poor. And we decided that we had to draw a line in the sand and say, “Enough’s enough.”
The silver lining in this situation is the support that we have received from our brothers and sisters of other unions — Teamsters, SEIU, the teachers, the bakers’ union — I’m talking about everybody — the steelworkers. They have come out en masse, not just to our facility, but to every facility in this country, and helped out. They walked the picket line with us. They brought food. They brought gift cards for some of our temporary employees that are struggling a little more. And it’s just been — the outpouring of solidarity has really been an eye-opener. And it’s a welcome thing, because unions have been struggling for many years in this country, and it’s nice to see that it’s making a comeback and people are tired of the status quo.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steve Frisque, we want to thank you so much for being with us, striking GM worker, former president of UAW Local 722, currently a union steward.
When we come back, we’ll go to Chicago to speak with the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has voted to go on strike next week. Stay with us.