Michigan governor supports striking GM workers

National

DETROIT (AP) — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is supporting autoworkers who are striking against General Motors.

The Democrat on Monday visited United Auto Workers members picketing outside the Lansing Grand River plant, blocks from the state Capitol building. Photos her office posted to social media showed her shaking hands and delivering doughnuts.

Spokeswoman Tiffany Brown says Whitmer is closely monitoring the strike and supports working peoples’ rights to negotiate together for better wages, benefits, working conditions and more time to spend with their families.

More than 49,000 unionized GM workers walked off their jobs just after midnight Monday.

Whitmer says she is hopeful that the UAW and GM can negotiate and ratify a new contract quickly, because getting autoworkers back on the job as quickly as possible is important to Michigan’s economy.

When the UAW goes on strike, Michigan naturally feels the impact first and arguably the most. U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said that a strike like this impacts more than simply GM. Suppliers, though more diversified than in years past, will still feel the pressure depending on the length of the strike. The loss of wages hits the workers on strike and that has a negative trickle-down effect on the whole economy.

“Impacts the revenues to the state, impacts what they doing in terms of purchases. Obviously you’ve got the whole credit issue that’s out there as well and lost production, let alone the impact on the consumers (who) may or may not put off buying a new vehicle… I mean, this is a big deal as it certainly impacts Michigan. And we hope that it gets, from my perspective, I hope that it gets resolved pretty quickly,” Upton said.

The congressman said there was warning this was coming. GM CEO Mary Barra was in Washington two weeks ago and Upton believes she told the president then that a strike was likely.

In a letter to GM, the union’s top negotiator said the strike could have been averted had the company made its latest offer sooner.

In the letter dated Sunday, UAW Vice President Terry Dittes told GM’s labor relations chief that the latest offer could have made it possible to reach an agreement and avoid the strike that shut down more than 50 GM factories and parts warehouses just after midnight on Monday.

The letter could suggest that the company and union aren’t as far apart as the rhetoric leading up to the strike had indicated. Negotiations resumed in Detroit on Monday after breaking off during the weekend.

But union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said they have come to terms on only 2% of the new four-year contract. “We’ve got 98% to go,” he said Monday.

In the letter to Scott Sandefur, GM’s vice president of labor relations, Dittes wrote that the company waited until just two hours before the contract expired on Saturday night to make its first serious offer. “Had we received this proposal earlier in the process, it may have been possible to reach a tentative agreement and avoid a strike,” Dittes wrote.

A week ago he had told union members that GM was moving slowly in bargaining.

GM wouldn’t comment on the letter.

On Sunday, Dittes said a strike is the union’s last resort but is needed because both sides are far apart in negotiating a new contract.

In the letter released by the union Monday, Dittes wrote that there are many important items left in the talks including wage increases, pay for new hires, job security, profit sharing and treatment of temporary workers.

“We are willing to meet as frequently, and for as long as it takes, to reach an agreement that treats our members fairly,” Dittes wrote.

GM said Sunday it offered pay raises and $7 billion worth of U.S. factory investments resulting in 5,400 new positions, a minority of which would be filled by existing employees. GM would not give a precise number. The company also said it offered higher profit sharing, “nationally leading” health benefits and an $8,000 payment to each worker upon ratification.

Before the talks broke off, GM offered new products to replace work at two of four U.S. factories that it intends to close.

The company pledged to build a new all-electric pickup truck at a factory in Detroit, according to a person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The person wasn’t authorized to disclose details of the negotiations.

The automaker also offered to open an electric vehicle battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where it has a huge factory that has already stopped making cars and will be closed. The new factory would be in addition to a proposal to make electric vehicles for a company called Workhorse, the person said.

It’s unclear how many workers the two plants would employ. The closures, especially of the Ohio plant, have become issues in the 2020 presidential campaign. President Donald Trump has consistently criticized the company and demanded that Lordstown be reopened.

Kristin Dziczek, vice president of labor and industry for the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank, said the letter and resumption of contract talks are encouraging signs. “It makes me think that both sides are probably closer than it might have seemed before,” she said.

But the union and company still are far apart on use of temporary workers and accelerating the pay raises for new hires so they reach the top of the union scale faster, she said.

Dziczek and Art Wheaton, an auto industry expert at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, say GM left out key details when it made part of its offer public, and working out those details could make the strike last longer.

“I think GM kind of sabotaged some of the negotiations by going immediately to the public,” Wheaton said. “It really distorts the offer.”

Wheaton questioned the time frame for Lordstown to get the electric battery factory, which he said would take years to plan and build.

Early Monday, workers shut down 33 manufacturing plants in nine states across the U.S., as well as 22 parts distribution warehouses.

It’s the first national strike by the union since a two-day walkout in 2007 that had little impact on the company.

—News 8 political reporter Rick Albin contributed to this report.

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