By Catherine Conlan
The little girl has a big smile as she holds the sign. She’s sitting in a wheelchair in front of a UAW banner, and her sign says, “GM cut our insurance. Now I cannot go to my physical therapy.”
It’s a brave smile, and it has to be. GM cut off the health insurance for almost 50,000 striking auto workers just a couple of days after the strike began, leaving thousands of people and families without the coverage they need to stay healthy.
The strike is one of the largest in the country in more than a decade, and the first against GM since 2007. The union reported that the first serious offer it got from the company came two hours before the strike deadline, and it only raised more issues for further bargaining.
Workers are striking for a wide variety of issues: fair wages. Profit sharing. A path to permanent employment for temporary workers. Affordable health care. Job security.
These are things each of us wants from our own employment. And the best way to get them is to organize, bargain and, if necessary, strike for them.
The challenges facing autoworkers are similar to those in other industries. Average hourly wages have declined since the turn of the century, and wage increases don’t keep up with inflation. Prescription drug prices put important medications out of economic reach for many people. Temporary employees aren’t necessarily considered for permanent employment, creating a permanent underclass that can be pitted against full-time permanent employees. Training on new technology to ensure job security isn’t always provided.
These are things a company that wants to grow and thrive sees as a necessity for its employees, not luxuries or extras. To play hardball with them is simply greedy.
Things get even more frustrating when the employer is a health-care provider. Closer to home, Minnesota Nurses Union members who work at St. Luke’s filed an intent to strike in October after negotiations stalled. Nurses at Essentia had reached a contract, but St. Luke’s was dragging its feet.
Staffing levels, recruiting and retention were key issues for nurses at both facilities. When a health care employer is balking at staffing levels, that can raise concerns about patient safety.
But just a few days after the filing, St. Luke’s came back to the table and nurses announced a tentative agreement.
Again and again, direct action gets the goods.
Going on strike is devastating. It’s not something a union takes lightly. And there are plenty of ways to get an employer moving that don’t involve filing a strike notice. But when the time comes, it’s the only power that can match up to the devastating tactics an employer can indulge in — like taking away the health care coverage of a little girl in a wheelchair.
The UAW strike might seem a little distant, but it has direct affects across the country. (In fact, there’s a plant in Hudson, Wisconsin, just across the river from the Twin Cities, where UAW members are striking GM.)
“We want to take this moment to thank the courage of our UAW GM members and their families,” said Terry Dittes, vice president of the UAW-GM Department. “Because we know that as this UAW contract goes, so goes the rest of our labor workers in this nation.” As the strike stretches on — and by all indications, the UAW is ready for the long haul — solidarity has never been more important.