The strike between the United Autoworkers and General Motors ended weeks ago.
But the aftermath is still being felt in my hometown.
The whole episode cost GM $3 billion dollars. For workers, they suffered loss too.
Each time the two sides come to a crossroads a picket line, there is loss even when there is a resolution. Each strike settlement is essentially an economic cease fire.
Growing up in these Midwestern parts, I don’t know a single person who is not related to someone who has worked for “Generous Motors” as it was called in the mid-twentieth century.
When a strike happens, we are all UAW members.
Community Response to the GM/UAW Strike
When workers walk off and onto the picket line, lines are drawn between our community and General Motors.
From the moment the strike started, workers reported for their new role as striking workers. They all take shifts shifts, not on the assembly line, but on the picket line for 24 hours straight every day in all types of weather. The picket line never stopped during the whole strike, even when the tentative agreement was first announced.
Whenever I drove by the plants with the picketers out front, I honked my horn like other drivers in support. We all felt a responsibility to keep their morale up.
There is a general sense of relief that the strike is over. However, in this town, everyone knows there is a long period before a new normal takes hold.
Now, weeks later, the effects are still being felt.
If a car repair is needed, it is taking weeks for new parts to be available at car dealerships. The lost wages of striking workers means that families are still struggling to make ends meet. During the strike, some workers even had to sell their homes, and are adjusting to a new existence. In some ways, it is like starting over for them.
What Small Businesses Understand About Strikes
Although some large corporations like GM can seem like an cold-hearted capitalistic structures, small businesses feel like the neighbors you can count on when you’re down on your luck.
During the strike, restaurants gave free meals to UAW members and their families. Discounts at local shops were offered to help people get by. Free haircuts were available at local barbershops and salons. When there was an opportunity to lend support, it was small businesses who stepped up to fill the gaps.
Small business owners know that in this town, the old adage of “As General Motors goes, so goes the whole country,” still rings true. To do anything less than support workers and their families is to ignore their customer base. It is a symbiotic relationship that exists, and one that must be nurtured for both to survive.
The last automaker to understand that supporting workers made good business sense was Henry Ford. Long before the United Auto Workers came into existence, Ford implemented his own mix of socialism and capitalism known as Fordism.
Fordism: Why it Worked for Workers
The earliest beginnings of Fordism were simple. Ford wanted to sell more cars. His company developed the Model T, which was a lightweight vehicle that was inexpensive to manufacture. To combat absenteeism in his factories, and to grow the purchasing power of his employees, Ford raised salaries for his assembly line workers. By giving his workers a bit more, Ford saw his own fortunes rise as workers could afford to purchase their own Model T’s.
When the UAW came into existence in the early 1930s, that labor movement helped to establish liveable wages, decent hours and other standard practices of the modern workplace. In the post-war boom of the mid-century, the average autoworker could afford a middle class lifestyle that included a nice home, vehicle, and an annual vacation for the family.
During much of the 20th century, Fordism was the standard for modernization of mass production and mass consumption. In the 1970s, Fordism began to fall apart, and morphed into Post-Fordism in the era of globalization. Now, wages have stagnated, and wealth is concentrated to a smaller percentage of the population in the United States and elsewhere.
The Present and an Uncertain Future
Fast-forward to Fall 2019, and it seems as if Fordism is in play again. When the UAW sat down at the bargaining table with Ford, there was no strike. An agreement was hammered out fairly quickly, taking into account concerns by workers and management. It is a four-year deal, comparable to the GM contract. Up next are contract negotiations between the UAW and Fiat Chrysler. It is uncertain what will happen with those negotiations.
Why was reaching a deal between the UAW and GM so difficult?
The relationship between the two iconic organizations is rooted in tension, ever since the great Sit Down Strike of 1936–1937 that unionized the entire automotive industry. Although there have been plenty of photo-ops of the two sides working together, it is a strained relationship at best.
What is hard for workers now is that although deals have been reached, there is no way to write certainty into any contract. UAW leadership is currently under investigation by the federal government for corruption. Technology is once again threatening to upend the entire automotive industry with such things as driverless cars and more automation replacing workers. Plus, free trade agreements make it possible for companies to ship much of the work overseas to cheaper labor markets where there is not the hassle of negotiating union contracts.
So while our town and other towns around the country breathe a sigh of relief that the recent strike is over, we know that it is merely a brief reprieve. In the 21st century, there are simply no guarantees for working people.