Autoworkers speak out: ‘We got a war going on’

Detroit — When you read about the auto industry in the news media, all they talk about is the “rebound” of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. The Detroit News hailed the fact that plants were “pushed to capacity,” which was “good news for autoworkers, who are earning more overtime than they have seen in years.” (Aug. 28)

Forget about “plant capacities.” The truth is that autoworkers are being pushed to the limits of their physical capacities. This point was driven home at a Sept. 9 Autoworker Speakout here sponsored by the rank-and-file group, Autoworker Caravan.

Workers called the companies out on overtime, disruptive work schedules, safety issues, heat, two-tier pay and the elimination of skilled trade classifications. About two dozen workers testified, some by name but others anonymously for fear of retaliation. Some expressed frustration that local union officials and the International United Auto Workers union were “going along with management.”

Summer temperatures in the plants are a big issue — on many occasions they are topping 100 degrees. Ford worker and Local 600 member Eric Truss testified that even when indoor thermometers read 102 degrees, the company doesn’t grant workers a heat break. Peggy Cicinelli, a GM worker and member of Local 1112 in Lordstown, Ohio, stated, “You have to faint” to get management’s attention. “We got a war going on.”

The eight-hour day and the two-day weekend are nonexistent. Mandatory overtime is wearing workers down. “Alternative work schedules” have three crews working ten-hour shifts and weekends — all at straight time — as part of their regular workweek. Workers at a Chicago Ford plant were suspended for leaving at the end of their regular 10.7-hour shift, after being ordered at the last minute to work 12 hours.

Two-tier pay — with newer workers earning less for the same work as their higher-seniority counterparts — continues to be an issue. Pay raises for “entry level” workers were negotiated in the 2011-15 contracts between the UAW and the Detroit Three, but union members want to see the $9-an-hour pay gap eliminated. As one Chrysler worker put it, “Two-tier must go.”

GM, Ford and Chrysler workers hired after 2007 are not the only ones stuck in the lower pay scale. Clyde Walker, a Chrysler worker and member of Local 869 was a “temporary part-time” worker for nine years, reaching top rate. When he and many other TPTs became permanent full-time workers, their pay was knocked down to second tier.

Actually, there are more than two pay tiers. Increasingly, work is being contracted out to companies that pay even less than “entry level.” One plant janitor, making about half what the job paid before 2007, spoke about the hazardous job of cleaning the plant basement. Typically, the floor is covered with oil and sharp, sheet metal scrap falling from the punch presses above.

The situation is even worse in former Visteon and Delphi parts plants, originally spun off by Ford and GM and now owned by other companies. “There are five or six tiers” at the Nexteer plant in Saginaw, Mich., according to recent Local 699 retiree Dean Parm. “Half the workforce is being whipsawed against the other half.”

Since being bought by the French company Faurecia from Automotive Components Holdings, which took over the plant from Visteon, Danny Kelly’s plant in Saline, Mich., is a house of horrors. Under one roof there were first and second tier Ford employees, ACH employees and contract workers, all at different pay rates. Now, Ford workers are being transferred to other plants while new Faurecia employees are forced to work seven 12-hour days for $11 per hour. Kelley, a single father making $16.50 per hour after six years, will lose his seniority when he transfers.

Faurecia has received favorable publicity as part owner of a new parts plant that will provide 500 much-needed jobs to inner city Detroiters. What isn’t stated is that this plant will eliminate jobs of more than 500 workers in Saline.

Workers could have shared their stories well into the night, but stopped to hear from Jorge Parra, president of Asotrecol, representing Colombian GM workers who were injured and fired. Parra announced that the workers’ encampment outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá was in its 405th day. Those workers, living in tents, are now on a hunger strike with their lips sewn shut.

Parra is in Detroit seeking a meeting with GM executives. GM has refused to acknowledge responsibility for hundreds of work-related injuries, leaving workers with no income or medical care and offering workers only “a paltry sum” in recent mediation. GM “was saved with your tax dollars that are now being used to finance human rights abuses in Colombia,” Parra stressed. “What we have been living in Colombia, they are bringing to you and we can’t let that happen.”

Those who had spoken out about their own working conditions voiced support for the Sept. 17 demonstration outside GM world headquarters, part of an international day of solidarity with Asotrecol.

Martha Grevatt has been a UAW Chrysler worker for 25 years.

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