UAW sees battle for American dream in grim Flint


By Nick Carey

FLINT, Michigan, Sept 25 (Reuters) - Don Spillman says he's here to defend the American dream.

"The American dream is to be able to buy a house, a car and raise a family," said Spillman, 67, a retired General Motors Corp worker who used to be chairman of the United Auto Workers union Local 599. "Either we fight for job security now or the middle class will be destroyed and that dream will be gone."

Spillman's words were echoed by workers on this and other picket lines in Flint, Michigan, outside the gates of GM facilities here on Tuesday -- the second day of a nationwide strike by 73,000 workers against the top U.S. auto maker.

The UAW hourly workers on strike also said that despite the financial worries that accompany a stoppage they backed their leadership in tough contract talks with GM. The union gives each worker $200 a week to survive on during a strike.

"We believe (UAW president Ron) Gettelfinger has our best interests at heart," said Penny Schumaker, 51, a 29-year GM veteran who was in charge of providing free lunch -- pasta in a Bolognese sauce -- to union members at the Local 599 facility. "We'll back them all the way."

Every car in the parking lot here is GM-made. A sign warns that nonunion made cars -- meaning foreign brands such as Toyota Motor Corp -- will be towed.

"Our members are proud of making these cars and have invested money back in the company," UAW Local 599 president Bill Jordan said.

Half a mile up the road from where Don Spillman is standing, a picket at another gate to a V-6 engine production plant bears a sign that says "About the American Dream."

Drivers passing by honked their horns in solidarity.

Workers here as elsewhere described their strike as a battle to preserve not just their jobs but to protest the outsourcing of U.S. jobs overseas -- an issue that has worried and angered many blue collar Americans in recent years.

"Somebody's got to do something to keep jobs in America," said Carolyn Collier, a 35-year GM veteran who declined to give her age. "However long it takes, we have to make a stand here before it's too late."


Ragtag units of a middle-aged and much-reduced regiment fought that battle in this town 70 miles northwest of Detroit on Tuesday, with very few workers visible under the age of 40. Many wore white t-shirts with black lettering saying "UAW strike 2007."

Flint was once the mighty beating heart of GM's manufacturing empire, with a local hourly work force of 100,000 at the automaker's peak -- more hourly workers than the company now employs nationwide.

For decades, jobs at GM plants, or those of fellow auto makers Ford Motor Co and Chrysler LLC, have long been seen as the path for working-class families to lead a middle-class lifestyle with benefits that are the envy of industrial America.

Now, seven facilities in Flint employ just over 6,200 hourly workers. Local 599 alone once had 20,000 members, now it has 1,300.

The town's economy is a shadow of its former self, reflected by many boarded-up houses and shops and abandoned industrial sites.

"I'm out here for my kids," said John Brooks, 55, a 38-year GM veteran who is a piston packer at the engine plant.

"If we don't fight for job security now, our kids won't have nothing to do."

At Brooks' picket, the most junior worker was Deborah Taylor, 43, with 25 years at GM under her belt.

She pointed to an expanse of fenced-in wasteland that was once the site of a GM plant where workers built the Buick LeSabre, a flagship sedan the company produced from 1959 to 2005.

"I don't think anyone's happy about having to strike," Taylor said. "But we have to stand up to save what's left."

Local 599 President Jordan said union members here have made enough concessions over the years and were overwhelmingly in favor of striking to preserve their jobs.

"We have given up a lot for this company, from increased workloads to pay freezes," Jordan said. "Now it's time to stand up and do what's right."

"You can only be slapped around for so long."



Follow Us

Sponsored Introduction Continue on to (or wait seconds) ×