Dispatch from the picket line at an idled GM plant

On Thursday, September 26, Ray Valentine went to the picket line at GM’s White Marsh transmission plant in Maryland. The picket was somewhat unusual as the plant was “idled” in May and all but seven people were laid off. Picketers included those seven employees as well as some laid-off workers and other supporters.

Workers have been offered jobs elsewhere – sometimes several states away – or else they may retire, if eligible. Otherwise, their relationship with GM ends, and they stand to lose benefits, seniority, and their pension.

Whether the White Marsh plant will be permanently closed is now being settled as part of the negotiations taking place between GM and the UAW. Nearly 50,000 UAW workers at GM have been on strike since September 16.

Ray talked to a number of workers about these kinds of forced relocations, and what they hope for the strike.

How long have you worked at this plant?

Ray D (auto worker): This plant, 19 years. It’s only been here 19 years. I’ve worked for General Motors for 36 years.

Where were you before?

Baltimore plant. I’m an electrician.

Tell me about the layoffs. What happened?

Back in November, they announced that they were going to lay everybody off from our plant – they were going to idle our plant. The first week of May, they shut the plant down. Maintenance stayed a couple of weeks after that, just to clean things up, drain all the cooling tanks. Then they all got laid off, and they left seven people behind. It was the union reps, safety rep, an MRT, an electrician, our fork truck driver, and our benefits rep.

What did the work look like after all the layoffs?

We were just there because they had to keep people in the building to make sure nothing went wrong. But we were doing clean-up details, cleaning lockers out, cleaning pits out.

Why did they tell you they were shutting the plant down?

Our plant is a little different than the other plants. The other plants, they said, because of the cars, they were shutting it down. But our plant they didn’t say they were shutting it down because of the vehicles; they were shutting it down because our transmission is a 6-mode Allison transmission, and they are building a 10-mode transmission at another facility. Originally we were told that our building, when we’re done here, we would be building something else. But now they’re saying they’re not building anything else.

Is there any hope they would start making things here again?

It’s all in the negotiations right now. I just heard that they came to an agreement on it, but nobody says what it is. And it all has to go to the board – to the top negotiators and the shop chairmen to ratify.

Tell me what happened to the people who got laid off from this plant.

About two weeks after they were laid off, they had offers to go to another plant. The way it works is, they offer you to go another plant, and if you decline to go to the other plant, you either quit — you give up your rights — or you retire.

What happens if you quit?

If they don’t open this plant back up, General Motors is done with them.

But some people are offered the option to retire?

Yes, if you qualify. It’s a points system: if you have 85 points, which is your age and how many years [of service] you have, then you can retire.

I believe around 50 people took the retirement. I know a few that took the reassignment. The rest never went back.

Where did they get reassigned to?

All over: New York, Texas, Michigan – just other plants that are open. Could be anywhere.

There’s people who’ve been at three or four different plants. Some people left our Baltimore plant and went to Wilmington, went from Wilmington to Ohio, left Ohio and came back to Baltimore, only to get laid off anyway. And now they’re moving someplace else. If you have 20 years, you’re not going to give that up – you have to go. That’s what most of them are doing that are younger.

Because they don’t have the seniority to retire?

And they don’t want to give up 20 years.

And you’ve got 36 years. Are you going to keep at it?

[Laughs] I’m not moving.

Do you think they’re going to lay off the remaining people at some point here?

Probably as soon as they come to a negotiation, we’ll be gone. They’ll probably lay us [the remaining seven workers] off and give us what they call a “relocation package.” And what they do is say, “You have seven days to report to this plant.” And that’s if you have email. Some people don’t have an email address, so they mail it to them, so by the time they get their mail, it might be three days.

And that’s going to get settled, as part of these negotiations?

When you’re out on strike, everything gets settled. Most of the time.

You’ve been out on strike at this plant before?

Not at this plant, but at the other plant. We had a local strike one time that was 29 days. We’ve had a couple strikes but they’re small – a couple of days.

When was that 29-day strike?

[Laughs] A long time ago. I’d say that was close to 30 years ago. We haven’t had any major strikes with GM. I think the last one was in 1970-something.

What’s the participation been like in this strike?

Well the only ones that have to picket are the ones who were in the building when we went on strike. You can see these people – we have ten, twelve people every day.

So folks who got laid off are still coming out?

The ones who didn’t get transferred to another building. The guys that didn’t accept the package, they’ve got other jobs. They’re working someplace else and they can’t come out. But we keep in touch. And we have some good people who have been here almost every day.

What do you see as the big goals? What do you want to see out of all this?

One of the major sticking points is the temporaries. We want, for one, to get their pay up higher, for two, not to be temporary for ten years. A lot of them are [working] ten years before they ever make them permanent, and then some of them, they never do make them permanent. And their pay scale, their healthcare, everything. These are people who are working on the line right next to people who are senior workers and they’re getting half their pay, which is unfair, and GM wants to continue doing that. They wanted 30% of their workforce to be temporary. We’ve had enough. Let’s be fair about it.

Sometimes in a union when there’s a tier like that, there are divisions among the workers.

No, nothing like that. We had a really good workforce, and we had good vibes between the temporaries and the permanent workers. We felt sorry for them. We’re fighting for them now. While in the plant, we couldn’t do anything about it, but now we can. So we’re doing what we can do.

Do you feel hopeful?

I do feel hopeful. I think that the union’s not going to allow [GM] to get away with what they’ve been getting away with. We’ll see.

Do you feel like you’ve been getting a lot of support from people?

All around. Yeah. The very first day we were on strike, a guy drove by and he was blowing his horn. A little while later, he came back with pizzas for us. And he said he was a steelworker, and he went through a lot of this. It’s been like that all along: people bring donuts and coffee and sodas and water. Different groups. The BSO – Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – they all came down one day and struck with us, which was pretty cool. They just went back to work; they’d been out for 14 weeks, I think. ‘Cause they tried to cut their pay in half. Like they got paid a certain amount to do a concert, and they told them that if we have two concerts in a day, you’re not getting overtime for it anymore, we’re just paying you for one. So they [tried to] cut their pay in half.

We have people driving down the road sometimes yelling out “get a job!” We have a job, we’re just trying to make it better. A lot of people don’t understand what we’re really out here for. It’s not just for us; it’s for the next generation. There’s nothing in here that’s going to change for me, going into retirement. It’s for the younger people. That’s the big issue. It was the big issue four years ago, and it’s the big issue now. That, and healthcare.

The original offer was pretty bad. It wasn’t what GM came out on the news and said. It wasn’t like that. What they offered us was, they were taking more than they were giving us. And nothing for the temporaries.

Rodney and Missy

How long have you been here?

Rodney: I’ve worked for GM for almost 28 years.

So you were working for GM before this plant opened.

Yes.

Were you working at the other Baltimore plant before?

Yes, I was. Broening Highway plant.

Did you get laid off here in May?

I did.

What have you been doing in the meantime?

Tried to find other work, but mainly trying to hold tight with General Motors. Hopefully the strike will be resolved soon and GM will give us a fair shake at the table.

What would a fair shake look like?

To increase the profit share, [create] a pathway for the temporaries to become permanent, a salary increase, and some security.

What kind of security?

Plant-closing security.

So the way it works now is, they close the plant, and they can just move you anywhere. How would you like to see it work?

First of all, I wouldn’t like to see the plant close. Before, we had what we called the “area hire,” which was within a 90-mile radius of your plant. You didn’t have to move out of that area. I would like to see that come back.

Do you think that they could keep running this plant profitably if they wanted to?

I think they could. We need a new product here. The product that we had has run its course. So we need a new product.

Did you get an offer to relocate somewhere?

I didn’t get an offer; I was forced to go to Wentzville, Missouri.

Are you going to go to Wentzville?

No, I’m not. I’m going to retire October 1st. So I’m being forced to retire.

Are you going to be able to get your pension benefits and everything?

I am. But it’s still up in the air with some of the other perks that we’re entitled to.

Are you feeling optimistic about this strike?

We’re in it to win it. [Although] We may not get everything we want.

Have you seen a lot of other people who were laid off from here coming out to this picket line?

I’ve seen a few. A lot of them are transferred already to other plants. So they’re picketing the other plants.

Do you know people who went to the Wentzville plant?

I do.

Why didn’t you want to go?

I’ve been here all my life. I relocated three other times. I relocated from Broening Highway to over here, from over here to Toledo, Ohio – Local 14 – and then back to here. I came back here January 2012.

Did you come back here because they closed that other plant?

No, I came back here because we got more work here. They put on a second shift, so I was able to come back to my family.

So your family stayed here the whole time, while you were out in Toledo?

Yes.

What was that like?

I came home on the weekends if I had a weekend, when I could come home, but we were working eleven hours a day, six / seven days a week. And I flew my wife in to Toledo when I could.

Do you know if other folks who worked out here in Baltimore are doing the same thing you did? Relocating without their families?

Yes, this young lady right here. Missy. Come on over here.

He’s dragging you into it.

She relocated three times. Give him a little taste of your problems.

I was just curious about what that’s like, the relocation. What kind of stress that puts on people.

Ronald: It’s not fun.

Missy: It’s very stressful. Especially when you gotta pay house payment, then you gotta go out and rent something, you gotta leave your family behind. The traveling is really hard.

How long did you do it for?

Missy: I went to Lewistown, Ohio. I did it for five years, then I came back here in early ’17.

Why did you come back?

Because they had more work, so I decided to come back home. I’d been trying to come back for five years. When I first went out there I was trying to come back. I had to wait for an opening.

When this strike is over, what are you going to do?

I’m being forced to retire, because I don’t want to go to Wentzville.

Why not?

I’m a little too old to be jumping in and out of those cars. I’m too old for the assembly line work – it’s all assembly line work and I don’t want to do that. I have 34 years and I don’t want to do that.

What were you doing in the plant here?

I was working in the gear department. We were building gears, checking gears. It wasn’t a hard job.

Had you done a lot of different work at GM?

I did, I did, I did. Mainly I was on the assembly line. I was assembling cars. I worked over here assembling transmissions.

So are you feeling optimistic about how the strike is going?

I’m not sure. The main thing is the two-tier. They want to bring everybody up to the same wages. I’m for that – they’re doing the same kind of work we’re doing there, side-by-side. They should be making what we’re making. Hopefully they will get that.

Ray Valentine

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