GM strike ripples through Wisconsin

Automaker's presence is minuscule here, but dispute's impact looms large

Detroit Federation of Teachers union President Terrence Martin and Executive Vice President Lakia Wilson join UAW members on the picket line in Michigan. Wisconsin workers are watching the outcome of the UAW strike against General Motors. (Photo by Ken Coleman)

It’s been more than 10 years since General Motors closed down its Janesville assembly plant for good. It’s been longer still since suburban Milwaukee factories of GM suppliers AC Sparkplug and Delco Electronics went out of business, the last of those in 2007. A sprawling complex of retail stores, restaurants, and apartments now occupies the plants’ former Oak Creek site.

But the current strike by 48,000 United Auto Workers union members against GM still reaches into Wisconsin, where the company is just a shadow of its former self.

“I think people should be paying attention to it,” says Steven Frisque, a 12-year veteran of GM’s parts distribution center in Hudson, the company’s last Dairy State vestige. “This isn’t just an issue at GM, it’s an issue all the way through the country now. When is enough enough?”

Frisque spent 21 years at the Janesville plant before going to work in Hudson. Other Wisconsin GM workers have followed their jobs to other states—people like John Dohner Jr., a second-generation autoworker and UAW officer. 

Since the Janesville plant closed in 2009, Dohner, who now has 35 years in at the company, has commuted almost weekly to GM’s plant in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he is a local union bargaining committee member. 

Universal issues

People like Dohner and Frisque feel the strike’s impact directly. Wisconsin Examiner interviewed each of them by phone between shifts on the picket lines in Hudson and Fort Wayne. 

The strike doesn’t stop there, however.

Frank Emspak, retired, University of Wisconsin School for Workers
Frank Emspak, retired, University of Wisconsin School for Workers. Photo courtesy of Frank Emspak.

“The economic impact is small,” said Frank Emspak, retired professor at the University of Wisconsin School for Workers. “The political impact, especially as regards our unions, is very great.”

The issues behind the strike are universal. “Manufacturing workers all have the same issues,” says John Drew, a retired UAW regional representative and before that local union president at a Chrysler engine plant in Kenosha that shut down in 2010.

Memories of GM’s 2009 bankruptcy and bailout by the federal government—since repaid—and major UAW concessions at the time underscore worker anger. “The thanks General Motors has shown has been to move jobs to other locations in Mexico and China,” says Frisque. “They have made record profits in the last four years going on five years.”

The union is confronted with GM demands for health-care concessions that would require workers to pay more. They’ve been offered a 2% wage increase, when combined with the health-care concessions, “we would actually be losing $240-250 a month,” Frisque says. “That to us is unacceptable.”

GM’s announcement it would cut off health-care coverage immediately for strikers—rather than wait until the end of the month, as has typically happened in past labor disputes—has become a hot-button issue.

Following its standard practice, the union is covering health benefits from its strike fund during the walkout. Still, the speed with which the company acted suggests “a shot across the bow for the union,” Emspak says—and one that seems likely to provoke lingering resentment long after strikers return to work.

Offshore plants, three tiers of workers

The continued migration of assembly work to offshore plants—exemplified by the closing of GM’s massive factory in Lordstown, Ohio, as the automaker announced it would build its popular Chevy Blazer in Mexico—has remained a major sticking point as well.

Strikers are also chafing at GM’s current wage structure.The company’s longtime employees have benefits and seniority. Newer workers are paid about half as much and with less robust retirement benefits while on an eight-year path that will bring their wages close to those of senior employees. 

Then there’s a third group: temporary contract workers paid about $15 an hour—less than half what full-time workers at the company get.

 At the Fort Wayne factory where Dohner now works, the contract workers account for between 600 and 700 of the plant’s 3,000 employees, he says. “It’s disposable labor is what it is,” he adds. “They use you up and then they send you on your way.”

“We feel they’re doing the same job we are, they should be getting the same wage we are,” said Frisque. “They should have a pathway” to the secure, full-time employment more senior union members have.

Worker activism spreading

With many employers using similar strategies to manage their labor force, it’s an issue that resounds far beyond GM or even manufacturing, Emspak, Drew and others point out.

The GM strike also appears to be the latest wave in a rising tide of worker activism across the country, following events such as teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and other states last year. 

“The GM strike is symptomatic,” says Drew. “It’s all coming from the same place. We have been held in place, really going backwards, for the last 30 years. People are starting to feel like they can do something about it.”

That could suggest an opening for unions to gain a new foothold. Popular support for unions is near an all-time high. 

State Rep. Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha)
State Rep. Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha)

“I think workers nationwide are looking to see just exactly what can be gained by standing up for better wages and working conditions,” says state Rep. Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha), a retired Chrysler worker and former officer in Kenosha’s UAW local.

Challenges ahead

At the same time, however, union support through government institutions is at its lowest point since the 1920s, Emspak points out—raising the stakes all around: “A victory at GM would energize people; a defeat would not.”

There’s another complication: An ongoing corruption scandal that has implicated top UAW leaders “has shaken people’s faith in some of the leadership and former leadership,” Drew acknowledges. 

“It hasn’t shaken people’s faith in their union,” however, he says. “I think what you’re seeing in the strike is people rallying behind their union and rallying behind each other, rather than rallying behind the leadership of the UAW who is under scrutiny and under indictment.”

Looking to 2020

The strike’s political implications are complicated. 

President Donald Trump made gains among white, working-class voters in part by claiming he would be tough on overseas competition, even as he was soundly rejected by working-class voters of color. But Drew and Frisque both observed that the Trump Administration’s late 2017 tax overhaul did little for middle-class workers, and its benefits to corporations didn’t result in wider benefits, either.

“What did GM do with Trump’s tax cut? They took massive stock buy-backs,” Drew says. “There was nothing in that tax cut to help workers. GM chose to close Lordstown and build the Chevy Blazer in Mexico.”

Trump made vague comments supporting Lordstown workers who were losing their jobs. Whether he’ll gain traction from that is questionable. GM has already suggested it would site a battery-manufacturing operation in the Ohio factory, but that has done little to mollify workers. 

But Dohner in Fort Wayne points out that in heavily Republican Indiana, Trump remains popular even among blue-collar workers, while “the Democrats could have done a lot more when they were in power to help American workers.”

Drew says Democratic candidates should take note—and he expects they will. From manufacturing flight to stagnating wages to failing to enact policies that promote unionization, “there was no real, direct appeal to working people,” he says. “And I think that will change in this election.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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