UAW workers rally downtown to urge auto execs to 'invest in us'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Hundreds of United Auto Workers members impacted by impending idling of General Motors plants gathered outside a black tie event at Cobo Center Friday to demand automotive executives "invest in us."

Chanting and carrying signs as they led a candlelight procession from Hart Plaza to the site of the North American International Auto Show Charity Preview, demonstrators aimed to highlight the automaker's decision to idle several Michigan, Maryland and Ohio plants.

“They need to invest in us and … come out of their ivory towers and have a conversation with us about our jobs,” Mike Plater, plant chairperson with UAW Local 22, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, told the crowd. “That’s what we want. That’s what we deserve.”

Several Detroit Police Tactical Services Section vehicles form a barrier, keeping protesters away from the front entrance to Cobo Center.

His plant is among the four in the United States that GM has targeted for idling this year, along with Warren Transmission, Baltimore Operations and Lordstown Assembly in northeast Ohio. 

The company is planning to halt production indefinitely as slow-selling products built there are discontinued.

It's part of a larger restructuring plan designed to save the automaker some $6 billion by 2020.

However, union officials in the U.S. and Canada have criticized the company pushing to invest in its Mexican manufacturing facilities while shutting down union-represented facilities.

At the vigil Friday, members repeatedly blasted the moves as harming employees while losing many supplier jobs and hurting nearby businesses.

“Why aren’t they standing up and being good corporate citizens and supporting the communities that supported them?” said Dave Green, UAW Local 1112 President, Lordstown Assembly.

Others noted workers made many concessions when GM faced a financial crisis nearly a decade ago but expected returns when conditions improved.

“GM makes profits, the shareholders make profits, and it’s happening at the expense of our members and our workers,” said Chuck Browning, UAW Region 1A Director. 

Reached for comment Friday, GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter said the company respects "everyone’s right to demonstrate and express their points of view."

"Our focus remains on the employees and the impacted communities," she told The Detroit News. "We have job opportunities for virtually every hourly employee at the impacted plants — anyone who wants a job will have a job.”

Before the gathering downtown, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supported the workers at the union’s Solidarity House in east Detroit.

“We are ready to compete with the world, but we need to make sure investments stay here in our state,” she told them. “…You work hard every single day to produce the best product around. You just need to make sure that the company has the same commitment to you that you’ve shown to them.”

Her lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, also spoke out on the impact at Hart Plaza.

“For every person who’s not going to work on the line, that’s another person not going to the gas station,” he said. “That’s another person not going to get a cup of coffee. That’s another person not going to grab a lunch. That’s another person not going to buy milk or orange juice and bread for their babies.”

The chance to speak out on the issue drew supporters such as Ernestine Howse of Detroit, whose father was a UAW worker.

“It’s very important,” she said. “There would be no middle class without the union.”

She joined the marchers who hoisted signs and marched to Cobo, where they converged with other demonstrators supporting a “Green New Deal” that would create more jobs in Detroit.

The protesters swarmed near the entrance as charity preview attendees arrived.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), joins protesters in front of Cobo Center.

Also in the crowd was U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, who criticized GM.

"You’re not going to take everything we gave you and go to Mexico," she said in a video posted to her Facebook page. "We’re here to demand justice. We’re here to say that workers matter, that human beings matter. We need a Green New Deal. We need accountability. … Enough of all this unbelievable corporate greed that puts people last."

GM has said it had 2,700 transfer opportunities for the 2,800 UAW employees affected. Last week, officials said 1,500 workers have volunteered to transfer. About 700 are already headed to new jobs in Michigan and Tennessee.

UAW Region 1 Director Frank Stuglin argued GM is only concerned with its bottom line.

“They’re just looking at numbers. I’m looking at families,” he said at Hart Plaza. “… Families are going to be split up.”