“They Made That Money off Our Blood, Sweat, and Tears”

After 2009, GM used its $10.3 billion bailout to slash labor costs and undercut the union. Now, it’s cut off health care for tens of thousands of striking workers. But GM’s greed is only pushing strikers to fight harder than ever.

Members of the United Auto Workers union protest outside the General Motors Arlington Assembly plant on September 16, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)

General Motors gave Tiffany Heiman four hours off, not a whole day, to help her decide if she wanted to accept the offer for a higher paying job in Kentucky. It would mean moving her family from Lockport, NY, where she worked at a parts supplier, in order to take a job on the Bowling Green Corvette assembly line.

She worked half the shift, during which she could build about 150 truck radiators from scratch. Then she flew to Kentucky with her eight-month-old daughter, drove around for a few hours, and decided the extra six dollars an hour she would make there would be worth it. Almost as soon as she actually transplanted there a few weeks later, after working every day for a month straight, she and her husband realized they were expecting another baby and were grateful for her higher wage. Their baby needed a few extra checkups along the way. Then the plant went on strike and GM dropped health care benefits for its employees, the fifty thousand workers whose walkout has halted its US production since last week.

She had to cancel the baby’s appointments because she couldn’t afford to pay the full amount up front. “It’s a right-to-work state down here,” she said, referring to the anti-union climate in Kentucky. GM offered her a 2 percent raise, a benefit of $96 per month. But they asked employees to pay an additional 15 percent of their own health care costs, which, in her case, works out to $230 per month.

“I keep this job because of the health care,” she said. “There are days when I come home after work that I can barely open my hands or walk around,” due to the pain from her rheumatoid arthritis and the grueling industrial labor.

But Tiffany was more than in favor of the strike. She comes from four generations of union workers — her great-grandmother built radiators for GM, too. She’s been a union representative as soon as she began working at the Lockport plant and became heavily involved in Kentucky, too. “I’m one of those people who thinks if you don’t like what’s happening, you need to step in and be part of the change.”

Eventually, someone heard her baby’s health care story via social media and arranged to have a free doctor’s visit for her in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where other GM workers are on strike as well. Cheryl Jonesco transferred there after GM shuttered the Lordstown, Ohio plant earlier this summer, forcing thousands of workers to relocate or lose their jobs. Chery moved to Tennessee and left her teenage daughter nine hours away to finish her senior year of high school. “It was that or lose my health care,” Cheryl said. And now the only reason she still has it is because the United Auto Workers is paying for its members’ medical coverage while they’re on strike.

But Cheryl, as well, notes the solidarity that has sprung up around GM. “When you work like we do,” Cheryl told me, “you build more than cars. There’s a real feeling of togetherness. And our union helps make that happen.” “I don’t think GM was prepared for how much public support we’ve gotten,” said Tiffany, echoing Cheryl’s point. In Lockport, workers who are on strike have been able to negotiate with community utilities and lenders to pay their bills late, even for mortgages and car loans, because so many locals have a deep connection to the union at GM. Steelworkers, firemen, teachers, and elected representatives have joined them on the picket lines.

Tiffany makes it clear that she’s on strike for three issues: health care, job security, and to support temporary workers, whose contracts are worse and wages much lower, but who work shoulder to shoulder at the same job as full GM workers.

But she also wants an even stronger union to come out of the strike. “Our leadership right now has a little bit more to prove to us, and they know better than to bring us what we would consider a crap contract,” she said. She thinks workers deserve a raise across the board, and she’d like to see a quicker route to higher pay. After seven years at GM, she’s still at $22.50 an hour and still lives paycheck to paycheck. And obviously she’d like the company to reverse proposed cuts to its health care plan.

With the company playing hardball, however, she’s not confident there will be an easy route back to work soon and believes the strike will need to generate more power if they’re going to win. “I think they [union leadership] have to prove a little extra hard that they’re fighting hard for us because there is some doubt among the rank and file. But we still stand beside them — fully.”

The GM strike has invited solidarity from other unions — Teamsters, who deliver to GM plants, have vowed to honor their picket lines — and the recent past has emboldened the strikers to demand what they deserve, making it likely the strike could drag on. Many workers are still resentful that during the 2008–9 crisis, UAW workers accepted contract concessions that kept GM and other automakers afloat, despite extraordinary bailouts of the auto industry by the Obama administration. The company used the bailout to reduce labor costs and undermine the union, a strategy that has paid off handsomely for GM — last year alone it made $8 billion in net profit. Until recently, when the strike began costing the company up to $100 million per day, the company predicted its good fortune would continue. Now that it’s coming after health care, workers are ready to fight back.

“They made that money off our blood, sweat, and tears,” Tiffany said. “We’ve all made sacrifices for this company — it’s their turn now.”