Members of the United Auto Workers union began picketing General Motors factories Monday after declaring a strike over the weekend — a decision that has thrust Baltimore-area employees into the unusual predicament of moving for new jobs at far-flung factories closed by the walkout.
The UAW called for its nearly 49,000 General Motors employees to go on strike when its contract expired at midnight Saturday. The automaker and union failed to agree on increasing wages and reopening idled plants such as the one in the White Marsh area of Baltimore County.
In November, GM placed the White Marsh plant and several others across North America into what is called “unallocated” status, meaning no products would be manufactured at those facilities. By May this year nearly 300 full-time, temporary and management employees at the transmission and electric motor plant in Baltimore County were officially laid off.
But General Motors provided new positions at plants in seven different states for UAW workers willing to uproot their lives and move. Earlier this month the company began offering 174 slots in seven states to Baltimore area workers.
“It’s crazy,” said Guy White, shop chairman for the UAW at the Baltimore County plant. “They may be moving to a plant that’s on strike.”
Baltimore-area workers are most likely alone in that scenario, White said, because the White Marsh facility was the last one to be offered job transfers.
“We were the last to be assigned,” White said. “Most workers from other plants are already at their new assignments. It’s just the people from Baltimore who are caught in this black hole.”
The Baltimore-area workers have until the end of September to relocate. While some younger workers can quit rather than move, more-senior employees need to transfer to keep their family health benefits and to attain the time they need to retire at 30 years of service. Many of those workers are ready and willing to pounce on any early retirement option that the United Auto Workers might negotiate with GM in a new contract.
Others are choosing to remain in laid-off limbo in Baltimore County, hoping that GM reopens the White Marsh plant.
That optimism was shattered by the union’s decision to strike.
White participated in the voice vote that union officials took Sunday in Detroit after the contract expired. Picketing at 33 plants and 22 parts depots began Monday, a UAW spokesman said.
GM said in a statement that the company offered “improved wages and health care benefits, over $7 billion in U.S. investments and 5,400 jobs.” It also stated that it had devised “solutions for unallocated assembly plants in Michigan and Ohio.”
White said he asked a bargaining committee member for the union whether the White Marsh facility was discussed.
“He put his fingers together about a quarter inch apart and said, ‘that much,’” White said.
The UAW agreed to extended contracts recently with other automakers, but chose to strike at General Motors because the workers had cooperated with the company to help it emerge from bankruptcy a decade ago into a highly-profitable enterprise today.
Arthur C. Wheaton, a director for the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said the union was instrumental in helping General Motors rebound after its 2009 bankruptcy and government bailout by allowing for temporary employees and newly hired workers to be paid below standard union scales. Now that the company is profitable again, the union wants pay for all of its workers to be increased, he said.
A strike hurts both the employees and the company, said Wheaton, calling it “a high stakes gamble" if it goes on for too long.
“It’s difficult to control,” Wheaton said.
The walkout could cost GM $50 million to $100 million a day, analysts told the Wall Street Journal.
General Motors books revenue for a car when its assembly is completed, not when it is sold to dealers, Wheaton said. So when the assembly stops, the revenue evaporates.
John Sofia, a Baltimore County employee moving to Missouri for a new job, said he expected a strike.
“To really hurt the company and to get what we want, we would have to strike for awhile,” Sofia said. “I’m talking like a month.”
But he doubted the stoppage would last that long.
“It’s usually for a couple of days, maybe a week,” he said. "I don’t know, maybe this year is going to be different.