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UAW national strike against GM bucks recent history

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The last time the United Auto Workers union took to picket lines against a Detroit automaker was in 2007. That year, 73,000 General Motors workers walked off the job and idled 80 facilities nationwide for less than two days.

 After the union agreed to the creation of an independent health care trust fund called the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, it sought job guarantees in the midst of the industry downturn leading up to the Great Recession.

That same year, the union struck the former Chrysler Corp. About 32,000 workers nationwide walked off the job for six hours.

Randolph Walker cheers on motorist as they blow their horns in support of the strike at GM's Powertrain Plant in Warren in 2007.

Since then, negotiations haven't exactly been uneventful affairs, but they haven't led to strikes either.

Nationwide strikes are especially uncommon. More typically, walkouts have been targeted at important facilities — typically, engine and transmission plants — that create shortages of vital components and cause ripple effects throughout the production chain.

One of the best examples of that strategy took place in 1998 when 9,200 GM workers walked off the job at two parts plants in Flint. The 54-day shutdown put a dent in sales as parts shortages spread through the system. It was the longest GM strike since 1970, when work stopped for 67 days.

By opting for a nationwide strike this year instead of a more "strategic" strike, the UAW is making a "sharp statement," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who studies labor issues.

"They're saying, 'The entire membership is prepared to walk, and we’re prepared to be out there a while,'" he said. "Most unmistakably, it'll lead them to settle faster, not more slowly. This was a statement. 'We’re all on the same page. We'll be on the picket line until we see the ability for GM to move more constructively at the bargaining table.'"

UAW workers stand in front of a semi-truck that is trying to drive onto GM grounds in 2007.

As in 2007, GM is facing uncertainty: a declining sales forecast, a trade war and increasing competition as the industry evolves toward autonomous and electric vehicles.

"They’re looking at major changes in the industry and the possibility for a downturn," Shaiken said. "The context is the workers gave major concessions when the company went bankrupt. They're here today because of the union’s role and influence on the $50 billion rescue package. They feel they're not being treated as stakeholders, but rather as expendables."

At least five other nationwide strikes have occurred during negotiation years, mostly in the 1960s and early '70s. The union struck GM in 1964 and 1970. Workers walked out on Ford Motor Co. in 1961, 1967 and 1976.

The UAW has instigated major work stoppages at GM 21 times since 1994, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In that same time period, it had done so five times at Chrysler Corp. (now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV) and not once at Ford Motor Co.

"GM has tended to have a more volatile relationship with the union than its other two Detroit rivals," Shaiken said.

He added, however, that because GM until recent years had the largest union workforce, "in a way, it's a little misleading."