Category Archives: trade unions

‘We’re the Sacrificial Lamb’: Lordstown Workers On the UAW Plant Closures

By Carter Eugene Adams
Organizing Work via Portside

 

Nov 11, 2019 – The Monday after Thanksgiving last year, workers at the General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant in Ohio were called in for a 9 a.m. meeting. This was a rare occurrence.

“I don’t know, was it three sentences long maybe? ‘Hey, you’re unallocated.’ …No one had ever heard of ‘unallocated’,” says John Sandquist, Jr., a 25-year employee of GM. “We didn’t know what that term meant… Basically, it meant ‘you guys are closing.’”

The Lordstown plant is the former home of the Chevy Cruze and 1,600 workers. For almost a year now, no product has been coming out of the plant, with workers transferred, forced into early retirement or just out of work. Over the past year, GM has transferred over 700 workers from Lordstown to various plants across the country, mostly out of Ohio. According to the tentative agreement between GM and the UAW, the plant closure will be permanent.

Sonya Woods, a 25-year employee of GM, who was transferred to Bowling Green Kentucky, says she had to either move, or lose everything she’s worked towards.

“Gotta go or I lose my pension, lose my benefits,” said Woods. “They got us screwed. There’s a big group that have ‘95 seniority, 25 years, and we lose a lot if we don’t follow it. We don’t have much choice.”

Last week, outside of the shuttered factory, four workers held the picket line, along with 49,000 other GM employees still on strike, even as news of the proposed agreement between GM and the UAW started to circulate. The four were getting ready to transition to other plants when the strike was called. The locals at their new plants allowed them to come back to Ohio to do their strike duty at their home plant, as the Lordstown plant closure was one of the issues on the table between GM and the UAW.

At the picket, workers stood around a burn barrel. Harsh orange streetlamps illuminated an empty, fenced-in parking lot. The 6.2 million-square-foot behemoth factory acted as an eerie monument to what was once an industrial hub in northeastern Ohio. It was silent except for the drone of trucks driving by on the Ohio Turnpike.

“This used to be non-stop traffic, non-stop. Look, nothing!” said Agnes Hernandez, a 23-year GM employee.

“This is the truck gate,” added Sandquist.

“There would be lines, remember?” replied Hernandez. “We’d have lines of trucks coming out here.”

After a moment, Hernandez realized Sandquist didn’t have his signature clothing item: his orange vest.

“Go get your vest on! Come on, OVS!” Agnes jokingly shouted.

This group of friends, who spent nearly every day together in this plant for decades, called themselves the “Orange Vest Society.” The orange vest is standard attire for workers in the plant. But whether or not a given worker was wearing orange was semantics. Those in OVS felt they had another layer of protection between them and management. Having the solidarity and at times friendship of those on the shop floor gave workers a sense of “you watch my back, I watch yours.”

The origins of this group are vague, but as Dan Santangelo, a 25-year employee of GM put it, the roots of it are solidarity and comradery. “Management would start something with one of us, and it just started as a joke: ‘You mess with one person in Orange Vest you mess with us all.’ We don’t know who came up with it, maybe it might have been Jeff” — OVS member and fellow worker on the picket line – “came up and said, ‘we should call ourselves the Orange Vest Society.’ So, that’s what we did. On our last day here, we spray painted it on the wall behind out team center.”

The proposed contract appears set for ratification. Besides the plant in Lordstown, it cements the closure of two more GM facilities — Warren transmission and Baltimore transmission — three of the four that were on the table.

GM’s stated the reason for the Lordstown closure was the Cruze’s poor sales performance in the United States, with consumers opting for larger SUVs and trucks. But months after the shuttering, GM announced the production of a strikingly similar vehicle , the Onix, to be built and sold in Mexico. GM has also announced its revitalized production of the Chevy Blazer in Mexico, shortly after shuttering the Janesville, Wisconsin plant where it used to be made.

Workers think the production of the Onix could have taken place at Lordstown Assembly and kept the plant open. Sandquist feels the continued closure of Lordstown has little to do with the product they produced and more to do with GM attempting to fracture worker power and solidarity.

“This community, this plant — we’ve always built a good product here for 53 years,” said Sandquist. “I believe it’s something personal they have against the local 1112, it’s something personal against this plant because the union was strong here and we cared about the community. They’re more concerned about profits.”

For workers in Lordstown, transfers to plants hours from home, buyouts and early retirements are their consolation prize.

In 2007, workers were understanding of concessions needed to keep the company alive and acted accordingly. 12 years later, with record profits recorded and salaries for company executives in the tens of millions, workers want what they’re owed.

But trying to negotiate that has been difficult. The six weeks of the strike have seen agreements proposed and then removed in the same day. Negotiations stalled, started and stalled again. The latest draft of the proposed contract is four volumes long.

As Parma, Ohio UAW Local 1005 President Mike Caldwell explains, it’s necessary. “Every single thing in [our] shop was negotiated,” said Caldwell. “At one point in time, someone had to fight for it and negotiate for it.”

The new contract between the UAW and GM meets many demands that sent workers to the picket line. Those include a revised healthcare plan; gradual wage increases and a path for temporary workers to be hired on full-time.

By not pushing further on running product through Lordstown, UAW officials in Detroit have affectively abandoned shuttered plants in pursuit of other demands. Lordstown assembly, Warren transmission and Baltimore transmission plants are the union’s biggest concessions.

“We’re the sacrificial lamb in this one,” Sandquist said. “They’re gonna sacrifice Lordstown for the good of the whole, and the whole UAW membership. I get their point, but it sucks for us, and I’m pissed off about it.”

Caldwell weighed in on Lordstown remaining closed after members of local 1005 voted to ratify the contract, 438 for, 404 against. “It’s still kind of a sad spot for everyone that that plant is still slated to close,” he said. “It’s very disappointing, with that plant closing, that destroys that entire community.”

Keeping the Lordstown plant closed means workers have a difficult decision to make: either lose their jobs or transfer to another plant. Workers who did not qualify for early retirement were given the one-time offer to transfer and continue working until they’re eligible to collect their pensions and retirement benefits. The new proposed agreement offers a buyout, but according to the highlights of the agreement, distributed by UAW, that buyout doesn’t offer much.

For workers who choose the buyout option, they agree to terminate their employment and benefits, save for some pension benefits. In return, they’re offered a sum of money, between $7,500 and $75,000, based on years of service.

While that may seem like a lot offered, that money is just that: money. No benefits, no health care. And for people living paycheck-to-paycheck, those benefits are all they have. For those with more seniority, they’re choosing between cash or decades worth of pension and retirement benefits.

The four members of the Orange Vest Society decided to transfer so they can make it to their pension and keep their benefits. They’ll be eight hours from Lordstown in Bowling Green, Kentucky and six hours away in Bedford, Indiana — leaving their families and their community.

“It sucks. Every one of these people right here around this burn barrel is going through that,” said Sandquist. “He has a family that is here and he’s gonna be eight hours away, same with Agnes, same with this man Dan over here. He’s got a wife, two kids. Agnes has got grandkids now for Christ’s sake, she ain’t gonna see them grow up.”

“What do I do now? Facetime?” said Hernandez. “I mean you can’t see everything on Facetime. You know, it’s like my grandson, he’ll be two in January and he looks at me through the phone it’s almost like he has to do a double-take to see and hear my voice. Just so he knows me, I have to keep repeating who I am. It’s so, it’s horrible. It’s like, ‘oh my god, he’s gonna forget me.’ Being that young he’s gonna forget who I am, you know, and that to me is just heartbreaking.”

In addition to uprooting their entire lives and leaving family here in Ohio, this also means the end of the Orange Vest Society.

Even off the shop floor, through the upheaval of the plant closure, OVS became a way for workers to look out for each other.

“I went through a very bad time before I had to go to Bedford (Indiana), I was almost as low as killing myself, that’s how low I was.” said Santangelo, as a result of having to leave his family, his home and his community. “Not only did my blood family reach out to me, but these guys did as well,” he said. “Jeff would call every other day to check in. ‘How you doing?’ He would try to get me talking. That’s. That’s the Orange Vest Society.”

 I think this was our mentality.We came to work to have fun and to work. In that order,” explained Santangelo. “We made it enjoyable. We made it worth our while to be here.”

“Yeah, but the place is so miserable you had to do something,” added Sandquist.

As the night goes on, the conversation shifts and changes, from heated discussions about the proposed contract to jokes about how many liquor bars and sex shops there are in Kentucky. The remaining OVS members talk about home, about what, and who, they’re leaving in order to provide. There are also long moments of silence on the picket line, between the jokes and contract talk. Against the backdrop of the shuttered plant, there’s this feeling that this is the end of an era.

“It was like a second family,” said Hernandez. “I mean we hung out together, we’ve known each other for 2o-plus years. These are my brothers.”

Agnes and Jeff go into the Styrofoam cooler next to the wood pile under a small nylon canopy. After a few minutes the two emerge with plastic cups. Dan had declined the offer earlier and joins the toast emptyhanded.

After the toast, the group sits and talks for a while longer before slowly, one by one, leaving.

Shortly after midnight, Sandquist is packing up his chairs and getting ready to head back to the union hall to sign out before finally going home. Before he heads out, he reflects on the future of the Orange Vest Society. “We might end up having a little chapter down in Bowling Green, one in Bedford, some of our friends up in Toledo will have a little — there’s a couple of us everywhere but the original core group is split up,” he says.

“That’s the stuff that pisses you off even more, you know, it’s the friendships, your family, your secondary family. You’re not gonna spend time with them no more, or you know, have them relationships. Talk on the phone or text, see what’s up with them but not like you use to. Kinda at the end, it’s over and it’s sad.”

Continue reading ‘We’re the Sacrificial Lamb’: Lordstown Workers On the UAW Plant Closures

The Return of the Strike

The picketing GM workers and impending Chicago Teachers Union action suggest a dramatic revival of striking as a tactic.

By Sarah Jaffe
The Progressive

Oct 8, 2019 – Friday night on the picket line at the General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pennsylvania involved pizza reheated over a firepit, supporters dropping by with beers and snacks, and a dance party to Carly Rae Jepsen.

It was the eighteenth day of the strike, which shows no signs of ending as of this writing. Spirits were surprisingly high despite the cold. Strikers in their UAW shirts and supporters were cutting up pallets for firewood, and planning a potluck for the following weekend. “Maybe it’ll be a victory celebration!”

The strike at GM, now at twenty-three days the longest in decades at an American auto manufacturer, came as a surprise even to longtime labor observers like me. Certainly, the workers have ample reasons for anger. GM’s CEO made $21.87 million last year while the workforce is splintered into tiers (new hires who do the same work get paid less than longtime employees) and dotted with permatemps. But because the action of the strike has been all but dead in U.S. manufacturing for decades, a massive strike at one of the Big Three car companies has seemed like a pipe dream.

Yet now, the workers are dug in, holding picket lines twenty-four hours a day and determined to see the end of the tiered system and the use of temps, and a revived though still small left is determined to show solidarity.

Of course, we’re still nowhere near the strike frequency levels seen before Ronald Reagan’s crushing of the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981. Acts of rebellion in recent years have been more likely to be occupations, uprisings, the kinds of dispersed mass protests that spread virally from city to city, as in the Occupy movement and the Movement for Black Lives. The Trump era brought back the mass march, alongside more disruptive actions like the airport protests in response to the Muslim ban. But the strike, long considered gone, is creeping back into favor.

Chicago Teachers Took the Lead

It was the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012 that revived the strike in dramatic fashion, defeating state and city officials determined to make teachers’ strikes a thing of the past. In the process, it provided a template for a reshaping of public sector unions that have allowed those unions to survive the 2018 Janus decision, which ruled that union fees in the public sector are unconstitutional. The teachers struck “for the schools Chicago students deserve,” and rallied the community to their side. They reminded us all what it looks like when city streets are filled with workers making demands. Continue reading The Return of the Strike

SEIU President Rallies Workers in Pittsburgh on Labor Day

By Marylynne Pitz

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union for nearly 10 years, organized health care employees during the late 1990s at a major Catholic hospital system in California.

Before Pittsburgh’s Labor Day Parade began, Ms. Henry urged local union members during a rally at Freedom Corner in the Hill District to continue fighting, despite the legal odds.

“The right to organize doesn’t exist any longer in the U.S. We have an 80-year-old law that is broken,” Ms. Henry on Monday told a large crowd that included boilermakers, carpenters, journalists, postal carriers, shipbuilders and steamfitters.

“UPMC workers have been trying to form a union since 2012. Ten thousand hospital workers have been trying to get to a bargaining table,” Ms. Henry said.

UPMC has announced that its hourly workers will earn $15 an hour in 2021.

The SEIU’s plan, called Unions for All, envisions workers organizing and bargaining across industries instead of the workplace-by-workplace system currently used in the U.S.

“Bargaining by industry, where workers from multiple companies sit across a table from the largest employers in their industry to negotiate nationwide for wages and benefits, is standard practice in almost every developed country in the world,” Ms. Henry said.

The SEIU also wants to ensure that every public dollar creates union jobs and that every federal worker and contractor earns at least $15 an hour and has the chance to join a union.

One of the UPMC employees who marched in the parade was Nila Payton of East Hills, who belongs to Hospital Workers Rising.

A UPMC receptionist for 13½ years, Ms. Payton said a union survey found that at least 5,000 UPMC employees are in debt to their employer for medical care.

“They steer us to Medicaid. Some of us make too much to get Medicaid. Some people are actually scared of going to the doctor for fear of going into medical debt,” Ms. Payton said.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, said federal labor law is “in urgent need of an update” because employers can play “lots of tricks” to delay bargaining.

“We need to level the playing field, ” Mr. Lamb said.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, served as the parade’s grand marshal. Other politicians attending included Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

Marchers walked down Grant Street, past the historic marker for Henry Clay Frick, just outside the building named for the industrialist.

Many trade unionists remember Frick for provoking violence by hiring 300 Pinkerton agents armed with Winchester Rifles during the bloody Homestead steel strike of 1892.

On the Boulevard of the Allies, where the parade ended, marchers passed the Red Door, where volunteers at St. Mary’s Parish were giving sandwiches to the homeless.

Continue reading SEIU President Rallies Workers in Pittsburgh on Labor Day

Bernie Sanders endorsed by Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers

By Christina Suttles
Beaver County Times

Aug 26, 2019 – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders nabbed a presidential endorsement from the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America on Monday, following a speech at the union’s convention.

PITTSBURGH — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders nabbed a presidential endorsement from the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America on Monday, following a speech at the union’s convention.

Sanders is the second 2020 Democratic candidate publicly supported by a national labor union; the International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year.

During his speech at downtown Pittsburgh’s Wyndham Grand Hotel, Sanders told hundreds of local workers his plans to protect middle-class families and tackle corporate greed.

“We can have a nation where all of our people live with security and dignity,” he said. “We can have a nation which does not have a huge gap between the very rich and everybody else, where income and wealth inequality is growing …”

Union leadership said Sanders has been a longtime supporter of workplace actions, including a nine-day strike in Erie earlier this year involving 1,700 locomotive plant workers.

“Bernie understands the need for workers to have a democratic, independent union movement that is unafraid to challenge corporate America’s stranglehold on our economy,” said UE General President Peter Knowlton a statement. The union also supports Sanders’ plans to expand organized labor, end right-to-work laws and implement “Medicare for All.”

The UE represents about 35,000 workers across a variety of sectors, including Beaver County residents working throughout the state, a spokesperson for UE said. Other unions with ties to the region have yet to endorse a candidate. Continue reading Bernie Sanders endorsed by Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers

Court rules in favor of Beaver County power plant workers in FirstEnergy dispute

The Bruce Mansfield plant owned by FirstEnergy Corp. in Shippingport, Beaver County.

By Luke Torrance
Pittsburgh Business Times

Jul 8, 2019 – A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of about 230 union power plant workers in Beaver County, supporting the union’s claim for $5.5 million in back wages.

In a decision filed last week in Cincinnati, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said that FirstEnergy Solutions Corp. had committed an unfair labor practice when it imposed a contract on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 272 workers at the Bruce Mansfield coal-fired plant, located in Shippingport.

The contract between FirstEnergy and the union expired in 2014; after a year of negotiations, the company declared an impasse in October 2015. FirstEnergy implemented a contract that contained some previously discussed provisions, such as the elimination of retiree health subsidies for all in-the-box retirees by the end of the year. But provisions that the union had fought for, such as a wage increase, were not implemented, resulting in the union filing an unfair practice charge. Continue reading Court rules in favor of Beaver County power plant workers in FirstEnergy dispute

The Road Not Taken

The shuttering of the GM works in Lordstown will also bury a lost chapter in the fight for workers’ control.

By Sarah Jaffe
The New Republic

June 24, 2019 – Illustration by Nicolas Ortega Chuckie Denison took the podium at the United Steelworkers hall in Canton, Ohio, in his ever-present blue Good Jobs Nation T-shirt, flanked by people holding protest signs. One handmade sign read “Promises Made, Promises Broken”; it featured a likeness of President Trump, who’d flown into Ohio that day for a big-money fund-raiser at a nearby country club. Another sign pointed out that Lordstown, home of the iconic General Motors auto plant, was only 49.4 miles away. Still another read, “We will lose 43,000 jobs because of Lordstown closing.”

Denison leaned into the microphone and told the assembled crowd his story, introducing himself as a third-generation GM autoworker. “I started in Dayton, Ohio. I watched that plant close. I went to Shreveport, Louisiana. I watched that plant close. I come here to Lordstown, Ohio, happy to be back in my home state. I’d never have thought that Lordstown would close.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Denison said, Trump came to northeast Ohio and promised better days. “He looked the people in the eyes and told them, ‘Do not sell your homes. The jobs are coming back.’”

The jobs never came back. When GM announced, last November, that the Lordstown plant would be closed as part of a restructuring plan, the community held out hope that the company would decide to retool the plant, and rehire some of the laid-off workers. But the last Chevrolet Cruze rolled off the Lordstown assembly line on March 6—a no-frills white model that workers draped in an American flag and posed behind for a last photo.

Variations of this scene have played out in countless shuttered plants and deindustrializing communities over the past four decades. But with the closure of Lordstown, workers are losing more than paychecks, retirement plans, and long-term job security; they’re also burying a lost chapter in union organizing—the moment in the early 1970s when the militant leaders of United Auto Workers Local 1112 at the Lordstown facility briefly revived the demand for greater control in the workplace. With the specter of Trump, the self-advertised mogul-savior of the manufacturing sector, lurking offstage, the last days of Lordstown feel like a parable about what becomes of workers in a political economy that hinges on their systematic disenfranchisement—on the factory floor and in the public sphere alike.

And as a twenty-first–century parable of the workplace, it naturally involved Donald Trump spouting off on Twitter. Nearly two weeks after the last car left the plant, Trump fired off a couple of tweets telling David Green, president of UAW Local 1112, to “get his act together and produce.” That outburst, combined with the news that Trump was heading to Ohio but skipping the plant, led to the press conference where Denison had laid into GM and Trump.

At the same event, Ohio Democratic Representative Tim Ryan—who’s mounting a 2020 run at the presidency—spoke about how plant closures destabilize the entire community. “You hear from a football booster, ‘So-and-so had to transfer. He was treasurer of the football boosters. So-and-so had to transfer. They ran this Boy Scout group,’” he said. “That’s what workers are…. They put their time in. You do everything right and then when you get home, you go coach Little League.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten joined him in calling for GM to reopen the plant. “If parents lose their jobs, it devastates the community,” she told me afterward. “Teachers understand that; they are in some ways the first responders.”

Alyssa Brookbank is one of those teachers and the president of the Lordstown Teachers Association. She’s seen the effects of the shutdown up close. “Students know they are going to have to leave some of their family and close friends behind,” she said. “They don’t know how to handle it, and it is not their fault. It is a lot to put on the shoulders of young kids. This is much bigger than just GM. It is going to affect other businesses in ways we don’t even realize yet. It is going to have a ripple effect.”

Denison has the words “Union Thug” tattooed across his forearm in sweeping script. Higher up on his arm, he told me, he has a tattoo of the state of Ohio. He returned to Ohio, to work at Lordstown, just in time for the bottom to fall out of the economy in 2008. By that time, he had enough seniority with GM—having hired on right out of high school in 1998—to survive the wave of layoffs that came with GM’s bankruptcy filing in the wake of the crash. “The biggest thing wasn’t the money,” he says now. “It was the fact that I had a pension.” Because of those benefits, he was able to retire this year after 20 years of factory labor. He’s one of the lucky ones. Continue reading The Road Not Taken

GM’s Lordstown Chevy Cruze Plant Closes Amidst Protests

Employees of the General Motors Lordstown Complex were the largest group of workers from a single Ohio employer were displaced by mass layoffs 

It may re-open in the summer. For 1,600 workers, that’s not much comfort at all.

By David Grossman
Mechanics Illustrated

Mar 7, 2019 – General Motors’ Lordstown Assembly plant was in continual operation since 1966 through yesterday, March 6, 2019. The idling of the plant affected 1,600 workers and is the largest of the U.S-based GM four plants that will close this year.

Originally dedicated to iconic cars like the Chevy Impala and Pontiac Firebird, since 2011 the plant built electric Chevy Cruzes. Through the years, the planet built over 16 million cars. However, amidst a restructuring the company decided to discontinue the model in America.

In a press statement, GM said that the Cruze “was a good product and was built with tremendous pride by the Lordstown employees. We know this is an emotional day for our Lordstown team.” Continue reading GM’s Lordstown Chevy Cruze Plant Closes Amidst Protests