Striking GM workers willing to tough it out


It's not a very hospitable place, that 5100 block of Holabird Avenue.

There's a lot of asphalt and concrete, and the sidewalk temperature was pushing 125 degrees at noon yesterday.

A chain-link fence topped by three strands of barbed wire stretches the entire block. On one side is the sprawling, but idle, General Motors Corp. minivan assembly plant. On the other, about 35 placard-carrying auto workers who were expressing their displeasure over the way the plant is being operated.

The striking members of the United Auto Workers were beginning the third week of a walkout over what they charge are unsafe working conditions. They also contend that they are being overworked as a result of the company's layoff of about 400 workers in February and that job-related injuries have risen sharply.

Terry Youngerman, a spokesman for the Southeast Baltimore GM plant, says that the company is concerned about injuries in the plant but is looking for ways to boost productivity so that it can be competitive with other minivan assembly plants.

Mr. Youngerman admits that the number of injuries is up -- though only slightly, he says -- during the first five months of this year compared to last year. But he says the situation is not as bad as that presented by the union.

Even though the heat took its toll on at least one striking GM employee yesterday as 51-year-old Allen Coogle was sent home suffering from dizziness and a high heartbeat rate, the consensus of others walking the hot sidewalks yesterday is that they are ready to tough it out as long as it takes to reach a fair settlement.

Members of Local 239 of the United Auto Workers Union walked off the job June 24. Although the company and union officials have said some progress was made, neither side is ready to say an end to the strike is in sight.

As local union president, Rodney A. Trump, headed for more talks yesterday afternoon, his only comment was: "They [GM] still won't move."

As he entered the plant, Mr. Trump walked past the line on Broening Highway where Melvin Matthias and his wife, Anderia, were picketing. They both work at the GM plant, so when they walked off the job they lost both incomes.

Instead of the nearly $1,000 a week they took home between them, Mr. Matthias said that they get by on the $100-a-week strike benefit check they each receive. Needless to say, the strike has hit them hard, harder than most others.

They reponded with a virtual halt in spending. They also took their two young children out of a day-care center. To save gas, they drive their van sparingly. "We haven't been grocery shopping since the strike began," said Mr. Matthias.

Despite their hardships, Mrs. Matthias, 31, says she supports the strike 100 percent. "I'll walk as long as it takes. Things are pretty bad in there. As for myself, I don't think I would last a year in there."

Mr. Matthias related the story of a fellow body worker who was injured on the job three days before the strike began. "In the body shop they work with raw metal, which has sharp edges. I saw a guy cut two fingers on his left hand. It cut right through the tendons even though he was wearing gloves."

George Jones, 48, who works in the body shop, says he works harder today than when he joined GM 26 years ago. Hard work doesn't bother him as much as the injuries he's says he sees almost daily. "You would think," he says, "with 20 years of experience life would be easier and safer. But that's not the case."

Larry Hall, a 24-year veteran at the plant, says he is one of the people who is being overworked. As a result of a repetitious job -- reaching overhead to install air conditioning lines and brackets, 24 to 30 times an hour -- he has developed a painful case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

"It starts here," he says, pointing to his elbow, "and it runs down to my wrist. It usually starts after about 20 minutes on the job, and it doesn't end when I go home. Sometimes it wakes me up in the middle of the night."

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