GM strike, day 11: Strike ending remains unclear, GM to cover health care

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Even if a tentative contract is reached in the next few days, it remains unclear when the national United Auto Workers strike against General Motors Co. would end.

A vote to end the strike will require about 200 local union leaders to come to Detroit to vote on any proposed agreement, a UAW spokesman said. Their decision possibly could lengthen what is already the longest national strike against GM since 1970. Picketers spent their 11th day outside GM facilities Thursday as negotiations intensified at the "main table."

When the UAW's GM subcouncil consisting of local leaders unanimously approved on Sept. 15 a national strike, it also passed a motion that they would make the decision when to end the strike: either with the submission of a tentative agreement to the membership or after ratification, the spokesman said.

The process has created confusion even within the ranks of subcouncil members. In interviews with The Detroit News, five subcouncil members described conflicting paths to an end to the strike, or expressed a lack of clarity about the process.

If ratification is required to end the walkout, rank-and-file members would be out several more days while casting their ballots and for their votes to be counted.

The UAW Constitution requires a majority vote of the International Executive Board before a general strike ends. The board will vote to end the strike after the subcouncil does, the UAW spokesman said, as a formality.

Union have bargainers signaled their readiness to begin round-the-clock talks. Talks wrapped up around 7 p.m. Wednesday, but this final phase usually suggests a tentative agreement could be reached soon.

Meanwhile, GM reversed its decision and said Thursday it will continue to pay health-care premiums for striking UAW members.

"GM has chosen to work with our providers to keep all benefits fully in place for striking hourly employees so they have no disruption to their medical care, including vision, prescription and dental coverage," Scott Sandefur, vice president of labor relations for GM North America, wrote in a letter Wednesday to UAW Vice President Terry Dittes.

The UAW, other labor organizations and Democratic presidential candidates took aim at GM last week when it stopped paying for health care insurance for the 46,000 hourly UAW-GM employees, including more than 17,000 in Michigan, who walked off the job. The union claims the automaker did not notify the union before stopping payments and shifting that responsibility to the union's strike fund.

"These irresponsible actions by General Motors are toying with the lives of hundreds of thousands of our UAW families," Dittes, director of the union's GM department, wrote GM's Sandefur on Thursday. "There is no doubt that public sentiment sees these actions of GM as a shameful act!"

GM said its decision to continue paying resulted from confusion around whether employees had health care coverage and who was paying for it. "Throughout this negotiation, GM has said that our number one focus was on the well-being for our employees," Sandefur wrote Dittes on Wednesday. "That remains the case today."

If employees have an insurance claim, they should submit it, the automaker said. 

Negotiations between General Motors and the United Auto Workers are said to be entering their final phase on day 11 of the strike.

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."

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Thursday he would visit picketers in Reno on Saturday.

He follows other candidates, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who have visited Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke also visited striking employees around the country.

The strike is the UAW's first since the Great Recession and GM's federally induced bankruptcy in 2009. Strikers will start to feel the financial impact of the impasse this week.

Strike pay is $250 per week, but it won't be distributed until the 15th day of picketing. The starting wage for temporary production workers at GM is $15.78 per hour, which is about $630 per week. Top-paid production employees, however, earn $30.46 per hour, or about $1,218 per week.

Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group on Thursday estimated GM has lost profits of $113 million to date as a result of the national strike. The effects have ballooned from $2 million in lost earnings on the first day to $25 million per day now as GM's vehicle supply diminishes. Some Wall Street analysts have said the picketing could cost the automaker $50 million or more per day.

The Anderson Economic Group has forecasted a strike this long could send Michigan into a one-state recession, an event that won't be known for sure for several months.

"The more days you go into this strike, the more it affects the supply chains, the restaurants that rely on GM workers for their daily lunches," said Brian Peterson, the group's director of public policy and economic analysis. "Maybe you can handle a five-day hiatus of no workers. When you get to two weeks, two-and-a-half weeks — everybody starts feeling the financial strain."

The strike has started to affect GM facilities in Ohio and Ontario not represented by the UAW. All told more than 3,200 GM workers represented by other unions have been laid off. On Monday, the automaker notified 525 employees at its DMax Ltd. plant in Moraine, Ohio, that they were temporarily laid off. The plant would not be producing engines for the GMC and Chevrolet pickups there during the strike at UAW-represented GM plants.

The union this week also said it is holding another "Solidarity Sunday" this weekend and until ratification, encouraging members of the public to join members on the picket lines. Local chaplains will be on site to offer words of encouragement at noon.

Staff Writer Ian Thibodeau contributed.