GM strike, day 14: Benson joins picketers at Warren Transmission plant

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson walks the picket line outside the GM Warren Transmission plant Sunday.

Warren – The skies opened up and poured out rain on about a dozen-and-a-half protesters as they held signs and marched along Mound Road.

This was Day 14 of the UAW-GM strike, the second Solidarity Sunday in a strike now stretching into its third week. Rain or no rain, there would’ve been a limited protester presence outside the former GM Transmission Plant in Warren, which was unallocated two years ago and has few workers left today, none of them on duty due to the strike.

Norma Holt, 56, of Belleville, works at Sterling Stamping, a Chrysler facility a few miles north, as a hi-lo driver. Before her 2 p.m. shift began Sunday she made a point to join the small protest, for solidarity’s sake. After her shift ends at 10 p.m., she plans to return, grab another “UAW on Strike” sign, and get back to marching.

“It’s not just GM out here,” Holt said. “We’re all out here in support. I come out because it’s a UAW thing. It’s not just a GM thing, it’s a union thing. Solidarity means we should be all together as one. That’s why I’m out here every day, before work and after work.”

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks to demonstrators outside the GM Warren Transmission Operations plant during a UAW strike in Warren on Sunday.

Late Saturday, it was announced that Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, would make a noon-hour appearance at the picket line on Mound Road. It took most of the noon hour, but she did made it, at about 12:50 p.m., arriving during a brief break in the rain.

Immediately, picketers broke from their marching and approached Benson, who arrived in a leather-look polyester jacket and a pink T-shirt, and was swarmed for selfies as soon as she emerged from her vehicle.

Before Benson spoke, she listened, as Chaplain Regina Hill, 53, offered a prayer. Hill has been a chaplain for 15 years and a GM employee for 22. When GM Transmission was unallocated, she moved over to the Flint truck plant.

Hill, a minister, was drafted into chaplain duty by her colleagues, but remains a line worker when there is work. When there is a workplace death, or a work stoppage, or a circumstance where her colleagues might need a comforting word, she puts back on the chaplain hat.

Prior to Benson’s arrival, Hill told The News she didn’t have any specific message planned, nothing written, no bullet points to hit.

“I let the holy spirit use me,” Hill said. “It’s whatever the holy spirit guides me to say. And I want everyone to understand that God still has our back, no matter what we see taking place right now.”

UAW chaplin Regina Hall leads a prayer outside the GM Warren Transmission Operations plant during a UAW stike in Warren, MI on September 29, 2019. (Photo by Anthony Lanzilote/Special to The Detroit News)

After the first spell of rain hit, the protesters took cover under a canopy, and several put on blue UAW ponchos with yellow writing.

After Hill’s prayer, Benson offered brief remarks before grabbing a white-and-blue UAW sign and marching with the picketers.

“Our democracy, our places where we work, they don’t work if our voices are not heard,” Benson said, as she put an arm around Chaplain Pauline Rhodes. “We believe in your rights, we believe in ensuring you have access to quality health care, and you’re able to put food on the table and take care of your kids, because we know how hard you work. …I stand with you today in solidarity to make sure you are treated with dignity, with fairness.”

Cynthia Harris, 53, brought her son, Tyler, 11, out to the picket line Sunday. Tyler’s been accompanying mom at picket lines since he was a baby.

Regardless of the weather report, Harris, a UAW employee in its civil and human rights department, felt it was important she, and her son, stand with the striking workers and others offering support.

“Rain, sun, shine, whatever, we’re here to fight for the rights of our 46,000 members,” said Harris, who works in an aerospace-focused area of the union. “We’re all family. A little rain doesn’t stop us, because we’re here for a better life. We’re here for what we deserve. We supported GM (during its bankruptcy) and now it’s time for GM to support its people.”

Spokesmen for both GM and the UAW said negotiators were back at the "main table" Sunday morning as both sides inch closer to a tentative agreement.

Negotiations ended Saturday around 7 p.m., the earliest discussions had been tabled for a night since negotiations moved out of subcommittees. Negotiators finished talks at around 10:15 p.m. Friday after discussions the previous day stretched to 2 a.m. 

While 46,000 union members continue to picket some 55 GM facilities around the U.S., sending shock waves and layoffs through the automotive supply chain, GM loses millions each day. And GM-UAW members see pay cut to $250 per week, less than half of what the average line worker takes in weekly. Picketers "held" lines at plants around the country through rain and colder weather Saturday.

It's unclear if a tentative agreement would send UAW members back to work. Members could remain off the job for several more days if local union leaders decide to wait to end the national strike until after membership ratification of the contract. The walkout already is the longest against GM since 1970.

GM on Thursday gave one major indication it was looking to move forward with the union. The company reversed its decision and said it would pay for striking employees' health care. Last week, it said it had shifted that responsibility to the union, a move that drew backlash from the UAW, other labor organizations and Democratic presidential candidates. The coverage includes medical and prescription drugs as well as dental and vision, categories that the union's strike fund would not have covered.

The automaker this week also took steps to ensure that companies who ferry parts between suppliers and GM manufacturing sites are ready when work can resume. Leslie Woods, customer logistics manager for GM Quality Carrier Management for Ryder System Inc. in Novi, said in a letter to the companies Wednesday that it was "a good idea to start the conversation of preparedness." GM dealerships have had trouble obtaining replacement parts for vehicle repairs, which is a hit to dealerships around the country.

The strike is the UAW's first since the Great Recession and GM's federally induced bankruptcy in 2009. Now toward the end of its second week, it has left a lasting economic impact, experts have said.