Courtesy of the New York Times

United Automobile Workers union members and supporters picket outside the General Motors Flint Metal Center in Flint, Mich., on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. The UAW strike has begun to have an effect on the company’s suppliers and its operations in Canada. (Erin Kirkland/The New York Times)

September 24, 2019

ILR Students Advocate for First Major Auto Strike in Over a Decade

Print More

The United Auto Workers union made headlines last Monday when it announced a nationwide strike — for the first time in 12 years — against General Motors, demanding better wages and a bigger share in the company’s multi-billion dollar profits.

As nearly 50,000 workers continue to strike for the second week, some Cornellians in ILR shared their thoughts on the issue with The Sun — speaking in support of the strike and workers’ rights to collectively organize.

For labor organizer Dan Kirchner ’21, the ongoing strike has been exciting to witness.

“I’m a labor-side student at ILR and I plan on going into the labor movement when I graduate and the strike is really exciting for me,” Kirchner said. “It’s one of the first times in decades auto workers have stood up to companies like General Motors, which have been making record profits. They’re not sharing that with the workers who produce that wealth.”

The UAW strike comes after General Motors and the union failed to negotiate a new contract in July on wages, health care, benefits, profit sharing and job security for permanent and temporary workers. The UAW also tried to persuade the company to reconsider the proposed closures of four facilities. Currently, negotiations have appeared to hit a stalemate.

In a press release, UAW vice president Terry Dittes said that the strike was justified after General Motors employees helped the company reach sizeable profits since the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009  — General Motors generated $8.1 billion globally in 2018.

General Motors responded to the UAW’s concerns on Sept. 15 and said it offered more than $7 billion investments in U.S. plants, an additional 5,400 jobs, access to more healthcare services and increased wages and benefits.

Despite General Motors’ proposed offers, ILR Global Affairs Club president Malikul Muhamad ’20 believed the strike was fair and found it fascinating to see concepts from his ILR classes in Labor Relations and Labor and Employment Law in a real-world setting.

“I think the workers, what they’re doing is fair, and it is one of their rights to express that they are not happy with the current conditions,” Muhamad said. “The fact that General Motors is trying to resort to other controversial tactics such as relying a lot on temporary workers, I think that’s something that’s very — you know, spitting on the face of the workers.”

While General Motors has resumed talks with the UAW, the company furloughed over over 1,200 workers in the U.S. and Canada. Some believe the workers’ demands in this strike could leave GM uncompetitive in U.S. markets as globalization and outsourcing has increased over the past few decades and the company now makes more revenue in China than it does in North America.

Muhamad also mentioned that the ILR Global Affairs Club is hoping to discuss the strike at club meetings and as president, he hopes to foster an inclusive environment that allows for all perspectives — workers and management — to be heard.

Kirchner told The Sun his organization — which is currently in the process of a merger between the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and the People’s Organizing Collective — will be discussing the strike and finding ways to support the affected workers.

Beyond the halls of Ives, the strike has also become a political issue in the 2020 presidential election. As auto worker support for the Democratic Party has slightly declined in recent years, a few presidential contenders have expressed their support for the strike. While the UAW endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, almost 30 percent of the union’s members voted for President Donald Trump, representing a greater share than the percentage of votes that went towards Republican presidential candidates in the two previous elections.

Labor organizer Kat Restrepo ’21 said that the UAW strike illustrated the importance of worker’s rights beyond General Motors plants.

“Everyone’s gonna work,” Restrepo said. “Everyone’s gonna be in the workplace, regulated by their managers, by their employers and it’s important for people to know their rights to collectively organize to obtain those rights.”