Anyone who arrived at the Tonawanda Powertrain plant Monday morning found striking United Auto Workers picketing at the entrances as the work week began with the United States' first major labor strike in 12 years.
More than 3,000 UAW workers in Western New York are on strike as their union contract with General Motors Co. expired Saturday night without any agreement or extension.
"We're in solidarity against General Motors," Bob Gorenflo, UAW Health and Safety Representative, said early Monday morning as UAW workers picketed a River Road entrance to the Town of Tonawanda facility. "They need to bring up to snuff their unfair wages and benefits, even though we have made this company profitable, on the sweat of our backs."
Talks to avert a strike were unsuccessful Sunday. The union announced shortly before midnight that its members had walked off the job. The UAW represents 46,000 members at 31 GM factories and 21 other facilities nationwide.
"Nobody wants to be on strike, but at the same time, here we are. And why? Because they're greedy as hell, and it's time to stop taking it," said Alto Byrd III, a skilled trade machine repairer who picketed with a group in the shadow of the Tonawanda Powertrain sign that's visible from the I-190. "Look at our CEO getting a $22 million bonus, and everyone you see out here isn't going to make that kind of money this year, together. And that's the money the government bailed them out with. So, it's time to strike."
Tom Felong, an electrician picketing along River Road, said that the Tonawanda's UAW vote to strike was higher than 98 percent.
"We're unified," Felong said. "This is the time to do it."
Picketers at the Tonawanda plant walked in picket lines at entrances to the facility, slowing the entrance of cars to the plant and earning honks of support from many driving by.
"It's the same thing across the nation," Gorenflo said of the strike, "making it fair and equitable for the workers."
GM maintains two key manufacturing plants with more than 3,000 workers in the Buffalo Niagara region, with its engine complex in the Town of Tonawanda and a components plant in Lockport.
The Tonawanda plant – which will produce engines for the next-generation Corvette after nearly $296 million in corporate investments for future engine production – has 1,540 employees, including 1,356 hourly workers who are represented by UAW Local 774.
At Lockport, the 1,293 hourly workers are represented by UAW Local 686, while another 200 workers are salaried. That plant, which received a $32 million investment from GM in 2016, makes various heating and cooling components, and will also supply parts for the new Corvette.
The two sides remained far apart on key issues.
The UAW has insisted that the automaker needs to come closer in meeting its demands for higher wages, affordable health care, job security, profit-sharing and a path to "permanent seniority" for temporary workers. Felong and other picketers said the temporary worker issue is a big one at Tonawanda where they said there are more than 50 such workers who have been at the plant for over six years, earning $15 per hour, working 12 hours per day, without benefits, sick time and with just three unpaid days off a year.
The union says it stepped up to help the company when GM was in trouble, and now that the company is earning tens of billions of dollars a year, it needs to give back to its workforce.
The Detroit-based company, for its part, says it has already made a generous offer, citing more than $7 billion in U.S. investments in eight facilities in four states, higher wages and profit-sharing, improved benefits and more than 5,400 jobs during the term of the contract.
The UAW already extended its contracts with Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler – both of which also faced expiration at the same time – as the union made GM the focus of its bargaining efforts.