GM union workers at Kansas City’s Fairfax plant on strike for ‘as long as it takes’

About 150 people working the third shift walked out of the General Motors Fairfax assembly plant at exactly 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

They, along with hundreds more employees of the plant, are prepared for a long slog after contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers and General Motors in Detroit reached a standstill over the weekend.

“For as long as it takes,” said Clarence Brown, president of the UAW Local 31, which represents workers at GM’s assembly plant in Kansas City, Kansas. “We are in solidarity.”

Nearly 50,000 members walked off the job at GM plants as the union pushed for better wages, profit sharing and job security along with changes to the company’s treatment of temporary workers.

Brown said employees began picketing right after midnight. By 9:30 Monday morning, dozens held signs at the various entrances to the plant on Fairfax Trafficway. All the workers approached by The Star referred questions to the union hall.

“This is not just for union people,” Brown said. “The livelihood of this country is at stake here as far as I’m concerned.”

GM’s Kansas City plant produces the Chevy Malibu sedan and the Cadillac XT4 crossover SUV. The nearly 5 million-square-foot plant employs 2,421 total employees, including about 2,200 hourly workers. UAW members can receive $250 per week in strike pay.

The national strike idled factory lines at 53 GM facilities, including 33 manufacturing sites and 22 parts distribution warehouses. It’s the first national strike by the union since a two-day walkout in 2007. UAW members at Fiat Chrysler and Ford continued working under contract extensions.

Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, which makes the F-150 pickup and the Transit van, employs about 6,900 hourly workers.

Any agreement reached with GM will serve as a template for UAW talks with the other two companies.

GM officials on Friday offered to build a new all-electric pickup truck at a factory in Detroit that is slated to close next year, according to The Associated Press. The automaker also offered to open an electric vehicle battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where GM’s plant has already stopped making cars.

In addition, GM officials said they offered the union increased pay over the next four years, an improved profit sharing plan and a one-time payment of $8,000 to workers upon ratification of the contract. It also pledged to maintain its “nationally-leading health care benefits.”

“We presented a strong offer that improves wages, benefits and grows U.S. jobs in substantive ways and it is disappointing that the UAW leadership has chosen to strike at midnight tonight,” GM said in a statement Sunday. “We have negotiated in good faith and with a sense of urgency. Our goal remains to build a strong future for our employees and our business.”

The automaker says the average hourly worker earns about $90,000 per year.

The company says the Kansas City plant provided about $217 million in annual wages last year.

The standoff comes as President Donald Trump’s trade war with China continues to wear on U.S. manufacturers. Trade tensions have stirred fears of an economic slowdown. And halting GM’s work stands to disrupt local economies in several swing states.

Even decades removed from its its top employment levels, auto manufacturing continues to account for a huge chunk of the American economy: The Alliance of Auto Manufacturers says the broader vehicle industry supports 9.9 million jobs and historically accounts for about 3% of gross domestic product.

With increasing numbers of work stoppages, polling data show the public has become increasingly supportive of organized labor. A Gallup poll in late August found that 64% of Americans approve of unions, up from below 50% a decade ago.

Asked about the possibility of federal mediation on Monday, the president said it’s possible if the company and union want it.

“Hopefully they’ll be able to work out the GM strike quickly,” Trump said before leaving the White House for New Mexico. “Hopefully, they’re going to work it out quickly and solidly.”

Several Democratic presidential candidates, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have expressed solidarity with the UAW and urged GM to negotiate.

UAW strike001.JPG
UAW members picketed at the entrance to the General Motors Fairfax assembly plant Monday. Contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers and General Motors in Detroit reached a standstill over the weekend prompting the union members across the U.S. to strike. The union is pushing for better wages, health care and job security. Shelly Yang

Brown, a 13-year veteran of the Fairfax plant, blamed the automaker for shuttering U.S. factories while investing in Mexico and China. The automaker announced plans last year to close four U.S. factories.

The UAW is targeting GM at a time of record profits. The automaker made $8.1 billion in net profit last year. But the company is aiming to realign its factories to better meet the needs of the fast-changing auto market. It also wants to control costs to be more competitive with the makers of foreign nameplate cars.

But Brown noted that GM benefited from a government bailout in 2009.

“We built first class cars. American people bought them, they loved them. And where do you think they got their money? From selling cars we helped make,” he said. “We are still making those cars and trucks for them to this day to record profits.”

The New York Times and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Related stories from Kansas City Star

Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas