‘Their win is our win’: Why some Philly-area workers see the GM strike as their own
As General Motors workers approach one month on strike, the picket line in Langhorne, Pa., turned into a bustling dinner party, full of public supporters who saw their own struggles reflected in the workers.
As the smell of grill smoke wafted in the air, Leslie Sheridan tended to a platter of mac n’ cheese on the General Motors strike line.
It was one of the dishes she had brought to a “Solidarity Sunday” potluck, organized to show support for the group of 90 workers who had been on strike in Langhorne for about a month along with nearly 50,000 workers across the country. Sheridan’s other contribution was a crowd favorite: cookies with icing that spelled “Solidarity.”
Sheridan, 34, of Berlin, Camden County, had come to the picket line with her husband and his union, the New Jersey Education Association. But for her, the strike was personal.
“It hits close as the wife of a teacher,” she said, referring to a New Jersey state legislature plan to cut benefits to public employees as a cost-saving measure. “I have lupus and I struggle with it every day. If they take my health care away, I don’t know what will happen.”
It was a common refrain that night on the tucked-away street behind the GM warehouse, where the picket line had become a bustling party under industrial-sized lampposts: Regardless of whether they were in a union or not, supporters said they worried about their own job security and their ability to take care of their families. They saw the United Auto Workers strike as their own struggle.
“Their win is our win," said Matt Hancock, a consultant to employee-owned businesses, as he fed his year-old son, Bruce, tiny bites of a meatball.
As the percentage of American workers in unions has dwindled to historic lows, public approval of unions has risen to a near-50-year high, with 64% of Americans saying they approve of unions, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. And over the last several decades, only the highest earners have seen growth in their wages, when accounting for inflation. At the same time, there’s been a wave of worker activism — from the wildcat teachers’ strikes in the South to the Google workers’ walkout to Marriott housekeepers and other service workers leading the biggest hotel strike in U.S. history.
That sentiment was on display Sunday evening, as about 100 people, from Philadelphia and South Jersey, trekked out to Bucks County with aluminum trays of hot wings and fluffy homemade Sardinian bread to share with workers. The potluck, organized by such volunteers as labor activist Mindy Isser, was just the latest instance of community support for the workers. Isser and other members of the Philly Democratic Socialists of America have been raising about $1,000 a week to go grocery shopping for any GM strikers who sign up for help.
Last weekend, the UAW said it would increase strike pay from $250 a week to $275 and would allow workers to take part-time jobs without losing their strike benefits, a move that workers said suggested the union was preparing for the long haul.
John “JJ” Jayne, a 36-year-old GM warehouse worker and a father of three, said he was considering getting a part-time job. What about Kmart? His 11-year-old son, Jayden, suggested. The one near their home in Doylestown was shutting down but still advertising holiday hiring.
GM has lost an estimated $1.15 billion during the first 25 days of the strike, according to an analysis by the Anderson Economic Group, while workers have lost $624 million in wages, not including strike pay. Besides having to halt work at its factories across the country, the strike — the longest at GM since 1970, when the work stoppage lasted 67 days — has forced the automaker to idle about 10,000 workers in Mexico and Canada.
The strike comes at a time when GM is facing declining consumer demand for cars and potential disruptions on the horizon with self-driving cars and on-demand services such as Uber and Lyft that reduce the need to own a car.
On Friday, the company posted an appeal to workers on its website, touching on one of the primary concerns of the UAW: keeping jobs in the country.
“Our offer commits to thousands of new jobs right here in the U.S. and billions of dollars in new investments in our communities,” read the letter from Gerald Johnson, executive vice president of global manufacturing.
But McKinnon said she wouldn’t be swayed by any statements from GM until it offered specifics and would advise fellow union members similarly. Workers are currently in the dark about details of the proposed contract. Aside from the offshoring of jobs, another top concern is creating a pathway for temporary workers to become permanent.
Employees say they had to give up pay and benefits in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis to keep the automaker from shutting down. Since then, helped by a $40 billion government bailout, GM has stabilized and made billions of dollars in profits. At the heart of the union’s argument is that workers deserve a bigger share of that prosperity, especially against the backdrop of growing income inequality.
Ann Cohen, a retired municipal union leader, came to the strike potluck with her husband, labor lawyer Stuart Davidson. They planned on bringing supplies to another UAW strike, of Mack Truck workers in Allentown, this week. Supporting striking workers, she said, was even more important now than it was in the ’80s, when she went on strike twice.
“The stakes are higher now," she said. "You have to fight for any position in the middle class.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.