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Day 3 Of The UAW's Strike Against GM And The Sides Are Very Far Apart


It is Day 3 of the United Auto Workers national strike against General Motors. The latest word is that the two sides are still, quote, "very far apart" on key issues. The measures they can't agree on include health insurance benefits and the carmaker's reliance on temporary workers, which means this strike could last a long time. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: I caught up with UAW member Jessie Kelly right after her four-hour shift on the picket line at GM's Tech Center in Warren, Mich. Kelly, a 29-year-old single mom, is in a skilled trades apprentice program at GM. It's a long way from her early days with the company when she was a temp. She calls it one of the worst experiences of her life.

JESSIE KELLY: They have a way of pitting you against a permanent employee where you feel like if you go the extra mile, if you work a little bit more than your union brother or sister that that will give you an opportunity to eventually get hired in full time. And that's not the case.

SAMILTON: Kelly calls the conditions nothing short of abusive. Temps get only three unpaid days a year off - period. Take a fourth day off for illness or a funeral and, boom, you're fired.

KELLY: I've seen temporary employees come to work and throw up in garbage cans because they were too afraid to go home.

SAMILTON: So even though Kelly is in a better position at GM now, she says she'll vote against any contract that fails to offer temporary workers a path to permanent jobs. And if the contract even touches the Holy Grail issue of health insurance, Kelly says that won't fly either. While union members now pay only about 4% of the cost of their health insurance premiums, Kelly has no sympathy for the argument that GM needs workers to pay more, not when it made more than $35 billion over the last four years.

KELLY: You shuffle us into a room and you tell us about record-breaking profits and our CEO is making over $20 million for her job. And then you say, but we need a concession from you again.

SAMILTON: Jessie Kelly says workers made more than enough concessions in 2009 when GM was in bankruptcy. Now she's fired up even though she knows living off $250 a week strike pay is going to be really tough. Harley Shaiken is a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley. He's seen strikes like this before.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: I think without question there's a moment of euphoria when workers walk out. They're showing their strength. They're challenging the company on something they think is critical.

SAMILTON: But Shaiken says that euphoria won't last long. Union members will do their own cost-benefit analysis of any contract that could end a costly strike. Shaiken does think GM will have a tough time making a case for cutting its contributions to health care premiums. While the automaker does spend a billion dollars a year on health insurance for its blue-collar workers...

SHAIKEN: Over the last four years, GM spent $25 billion in stock buybacks and in dividends to shareholders.

SAMILTON: And yet, Harley Shaiken notes, few question whether those expenditures make GM less competitive. It seems like messing with health insurance is a go-to-war issue for the UAW. Kristin Dziczek is with the Center for Automotive Research. She thinks it's unlikely GM will push very hard on the health insurance issue, but it may when it comes to temporary workers. Dziczek says nobody has a crystal ball to ask the question, how long will this strike last?

KRISTIN DZICZEK: None of us are in that room. We don't know how far apart they really are. And we don't know what are the must-haves versus the nice-to-have pieces of each side's demands.

SAMILTON: For the nearly 50,000 GM workers out on strike, there's a new routine - go to the union hall, check on the picket schedule and get out on that line. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.