When Clarence Natividad first arrived in Bucks County from the Philippines, joining his wife and daughter after 10 long years, he immediately applied to work at the nearby General Motors warehouse.
His wife, Aurora Manglicmot, then a certified nursing assistant at St. Mary’s, had heard it was a good job: solid pay, affordable health care, steady hours.
Four years later, they both work there, picking and packing auto parts that will get shipped to dealerships across the Northeast. The job, said 50-year-old Natividad, allows them to help pay for their daughter’s college loans. She’s studying to get her doctorate in pharmacy at Jefferson.
Now, the couple is among the nearly 46,000 GM workers on strike around the country, nearly 90 of whom work out of the Langhorne warehouse. The United Auto Workers strike, which began Monday, is a battle to restore some of the concessions workers made during the $51 billion industry recession bailout now that GM has made $35 billion in profits over the last three years.
“Our goal remains to reach an agreement that builds a stronger future for our employees and our business,” GM said in a statement Monday. The strike has disrupted delivery of parts used to repair cars and trucks at GM dealerships, the company told auto industry news outlet Detroit Bureau, though it said it has alternatives: Large dealerships have their own warehouses, for example.
The contract dispute is one that touches a wide range of labor issues that have gripped the entire country: stagnant wages, an overreliance on temp workers, more expensive employer-sponsored health care plans, and the offshoring of industrial jobs. And it comes at a time when more workers are going on high-profile strikes and finding increasing public support.
The Langhorne employees, most of whom work physically demanding jobs moving parts such as windshield wipers and brake pads to be shipped out to dealerships, have been on strike around the clock since Monday at the back entrance of the warehouse off Route 1. Organized into six-hour shifts of five or six workers, they fielded honks from sympathetic drivers and accepted donations of pizza and soda from other unions. Labor activists raised money for the workers and organized ride-shares from Philadelphia. On Tuesday, past midnight, temperatures dropped to the 60s; workers brought fire pits and pallets on Wednesday to prepare for the cool night ahead.
There were moments of joy, such as a 10 a.m. dance party Wednesday to Prince’s “Kiss" and constant visits from a worker’s affectionate English Labrador named Bella. And there was fury, as Dave Greenhalgh, a Local 2177 benefits representative, risked arrest by blocking off one of the warehouse’s entrances with his car to protest GM unexpectedly cutting off the workers’ health benefits, though they had already been paid through the month. And there were Langhorne workers on disability, one with lung cancer who was undergoing chemotherapy, and another who landed in the emergency room this week.
Much of the conversation came back to what the workers saw as the inequity between their asks and the nearly $22 million compensation package given to GM CEO Mary Barra last year. In the 2015 contract, workers at the Langhorne warehouse began at $14.76 an hour and maxed out at $29.78 an hour in eight years, said Ty Pogue, a union committeeman who used to work on the warehouse floor. GM is proposing a 2% raise in two years of the contract and 2% lump-sum payments in the other two years, which the union says is lower than what the company agreed to in the 2015 contract.
“We just want a piece of the pie,” Greenhalgh said.
Workers are also upset about a two-tier system that has newer hires making significantly less than tenured workers, some of whom, such as George Muller, worked for GM in the 1970s and ’80s when the company still had a parts manufacturing plant in Trenton.
The company’s use of temp workers — who have no defined timetable for becoming permanent — is another sticking point for the union. About 7% of GM’s hourly workers are temps. At the Langhorne warehouse, everyone begins as a lower-paid temp, though it varies from worker to worker how long the wait is to become permanent. Natividad, who started in 2015, became permanent in six months. “I’m one of the luckiest,” he said. But it took his wife, who started in 2018, 14 months to transition.
These issues coincide with a growing emphasis on worker speed, as has become common in warehouses with worker tracking technology. Workers at Langhorne say productivity metrics — lines per hour, or LPH — have continued to increase over the last decade. Though supervisors are not technically allowed to discipline workers over these goals, said Pogue and warehouse worker Kelly McKinnon, there are other tactics — writing someone up for taking too long on a restroom break, for example — if they note that someone is falling behind. The work is so arduous that one colleague has had multiple knee replacements, they said.
On Wednesday afternoon, a picker named Alicia Gertslauer brought her mother to the picket line and coordinated transportation of the pallets they planned to burn for warmth. A stay-at-home mom before coming to GM five years ago, Gertslauer, 42, offered to pick up supplies for her coworkers: Black and Milds, a brand of cigars, one requested.
On the drive home, she told her mother, Dot Wolf, that she hoped the strike wouldn’t last long. The workers are getting paid through the union’s strike fund but significantly less than they would make if they were working.
“It’s amazing, though,” she said to her mother. “That woman makes more in a month than I make in a year.”
Wolf paused for a moment, and then, as if registering that her daughter was talking about GM CEO Barra: “Oh, of course."