UAW strikers prepare for the worst, hope for the best: 'There will be some hardships'

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Saturday is date night, but Angela and John Shock are trying to trim expenses, so they're planning to just go for a stroll ...

On the picket line.

She's in skilled trades at the GM Tech Center in Warren. He's an assembly inspector there, scheduled for the 5-to-9 p.m. picket shift at an entry gate along Van Dyke Avenue. Along with 46,000 other UAW members, they're on strike and on notice: This is not the time to fritter away money.

Angela Shock kisses her daughter Racquel, 8, who senses the concern of her parents 
Thursday at their Warren home.  The UAW strike has hit the finances of the Shock household as Angela and her husband Jon both work for General Motors.

Not on a movie, not on a meal, not even on a fritter. Or on a bit of dental surgery for their 8-year-old, Racquel; that'll wait until they're back to work.

It's 11 days into the walkout, and the expectation among Local 160 members outside the tech center this week was that if they haven't already, they'll soon start feeling the bite.

The level of pain will vary. With 46,000 employees out, there are 46,000 sets of circumstances. But the last paychecks cleared Sept. 20, and the first of the weekly $250 strike checks from the UAW won't arrive until day 15.

Most everyone will feel at least a nip — or at the Shocks' 1,430-square-foot ranch house in Warren, a trickle of sweat. When temperatures hit the 80s over the weekend, they kept their air conditioner off, the better to deflate their utility bill.

"It was pretty warm in there," said Angela, 48, from outside Gate 9, and then she laughed. Her mom is on strike, too, and the only reason her dad isn't is that he's retired.

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It's the price you pay, she said, for principle. She and her husband have cut their grocery bill by at least 50 percent, they've eliminated small luxuries like gourmet coffee, and with luck and a reasonably quick settlement, their savings account will remain untapped.

Reading the tea leaves from midweek, when the UAW brought all the unresolved proposals to the main table, a tentative agreement might be within reach. On Thursday, GM reversed field and announced it will continue to pay the UAW members' health care premiums, another good sign.

A tentative agreement, though, might not necessarily mean an immediate return to work.

As a veteran of 41 years with GM — and five strikes, large and small — metal model maker Dave Fortino, 62, of Swartz Creek said it's always best to prepare for the worst.

Angela Shock of Warren reduced her grocery bill in anticipation of the strike, and when the temperatures hit 80 degrees last weekend, she kept her air conditioner turned off.

"You have to realize: when the union says it's a strike year, it's a possibility," he said. "There will be some hardships. There always are."

There are also unexpected gestures of sympathy or solidarity. People have dropped off cases of water or stacks of pizzas. A sandwich shop provided an array of subs. Along Van Dyke, trucks from Chrysler Sterling Stamping two miles north blasted their air horns in support as they rolled by.

On the sidewalk, millwright Jessica Merz of Fraser pedaled up on a knobby-tired bicycle.

The workers' jobs are increasingly high-tech, but the process for getting a strike check  probably hasn't changed much since the last major GM walkout in 1998. They have to pull a four-hour shift every other day, at the union hall or on the line, and Merz carried a sign-in sheet on a clipboard.

Merz, 40, was a waitress at an Outback steakhouse when she hired on with GM 20 years ago. Now she's a divorced mom with three boys in high school — and a brother on salary who works in the same cluster of buildings her local was picketing.

With a potential strike sitting darkly on the horizon, "I definitely had to do some personal cutbacks," she said. "I wanted to get my credit cards paid off, and I came close to it."

Her oldest son turned 17 on Monday and she gave him a nice set of headphones, not Cadillac but at least a well-equipped Chevy.

The two younger boys have their homecoming dance coming up, and they had to add some of their own money to the $300 she doled out for suits and shoes.

"The bad thing is, my ex is also on strike," Merz said.

She figures she can handle two months of car and mortgage payments, "and then I'll have my 401(k). Luckily, I've been here long enough to have that."

Mike Frost of Highland Township joked that a second picket sign kept him balanced as he walked the line at the GM Tech Center's Gate 10.

A short walk south at Gate 10, Mike Frost was hoping to have a mortgage payment to make.

Boxes are packed at his home in Highland Township, and he's laid out $2,000 in deposits and expenses for a move to Lapeer. But that's on hold while his mortgage company tries to work the math on a strike.

"This would have been the first house I bought," said Frost, 46, after a hands-on expansion of the little place he married into. "It seemed pretty safe to move in that direction, knowing how well the company has been doing."

GM has earned $35 billion in North America across the last three years. That's to everyone's benefit, Frost said — or at least, it should be.

Instead, he said, it took unexpected generosity to fuel his 6-year-old son's passion for reading at a school book fair this week. Since restaurants and well-wishers have donated lunch to picketers, Frost gave his lunch money to young Zander.

"Hopefully before long, the company goes back to making money, and we go back to our jobs," he said.

Meantime, "It'll be a lot more Ramen soup. It won't be the first time."

After 45 years with GM, Leon Harvey of Farmington Hills says he’s not worried about handling the strike financially. He’s picketing on behalf of the younger employees.

Frost, an apprentice metal model maker, carried two UAW On Strike picket signs, green-on-white. Leon Harvey of Farmington Hills had one, blue-on-white, held high.

He's white-haired at 66, with 45 years on the job as a metal model maker, "essentially tool-and-die."

The strike is his third, he said, and also his last. His wife is a retired schoolteacher, their house is paid off, and they have places to go. His plan is to leap at the next buyout.

"I'm out here for the younger guys," he said. "When I was young, somebody was out here for me."

His financial advice to younger colleagues across the last six or eight months was short and sweeping: "Don't do anything stupid."

Denise Blue of Sterling Heights used the same keyword. "I've been cutting back on a lot of stupid spending," she said.

Blue, 52, is a heavy equipment mechanic, fixing everything from weed whips to front-end loaders. She has two college-student sons, 25 and 22, "and I kept telling the kids, if it's not something we really need, we're not going to get it."

With 25 years' worth of on-the-job perspective, "I knew both sides were going to dig in pretty hard," she said.

With the big things out of her control, she took a sharp look at small things, such as movies.

"Rather than go to the show at peak times, we'll go to a matinee. Or we'll rent a movie," she said.

That's a good place to start, financial advisers say. Most people don't keep track of what they're spending, and often don't prioritize. House and car payments are essential. Cable television isn't, and it can always be restarted.

In a perfect world, everyone would have three to six months' worth of expenses stashed in an emergency fund. In the real world, said Kevin Janeway of RWS Financial Group in Royal Oak, most people don't think to do that, can't, or don't know how.

"You watch your expenses and you cut back on all the things that are luxury items," Janeway said. Think of it as a small-scale recession: "You don’t go to the movies. You don’t go out to dinner as much. You wind up at the Costcos of the world, buying bulk food."

It's a good response to a crisis, he said, and good training for the next one.

At the Shocks' house in Warren, the cable cord will be cut if the strike lasts to mid-October.

Angela Shock jokes that she's grateful for a frugal husband who keeps the two of them in line. In truth, she said, she's almost genetically cautious.

Her dad, Daniel Via, was on strike for 67 days in 1970. Her mom, Suzanne, was six months pregnant with Angela when he went back to work.

"I don't want a million-dollar home," Angela said. Her list of priorities mostly involves Racquel, who attends a Catholic elementary school: clothing, health care and a good education.

She'd like to sleep better, Angela said; she and John have been having some restless nights. She'd like to soothe Racquel, who can tell something is out of kilter.

Oh, and on Saturday — date night — it would be nice if it didn't rain.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn