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Striking GM workers resolute as walkout reaches one-month mark

As the United Auto Workers strike at General Motors reaches the one-month mark, the economic toll is mounting – on both sides.

For the strikers, their weekly paychecks have been replaced by a weekly strike payment from the union that started off at $250 a week but was raised to $275 earlier this week. The union has also loosened restrictions on striking workers taking part-time jobs to supplement their income. Mobile food pantries have targeted Tonawanda and Lockport.

"We were told basically about a year ago, 'Get ready, start saving your money,' and that's what we started doing," said Jimmy Hartman, a striking GM worker who lives on Grand Island. "I have a wife and two little kids, so we've pinched pennies, doing what we have to do."

Nearly a month in, the work stoppage also is hitting GM. The Center for Automotive Research estimates the strike costs GM $450 million in lost revenue each week, and costs the UAW's strike fund about $12 million a week. The center said the strike also touches the broader economy, including suppliers and spinoff employment.

About 46,000 UAW members went on strike Sept. 16 at more than 30 GM facilities around the country, including a total of about 3,000 hourly workers at the Tonawanda engine plant and a components plant in Lockport.

On Tuesday, there was a hopeful sign that the strike may not last much longer. GM CEO Mary Barra and President Mark Reuss met Tuesday with UAW negotiators in Detroit, which could signal the two sides are closer to a tentative agreement. The UAW has summoned local union leaders to Detroit for a Thursday meeting, to update them on talks.

Regardless, outside GM’s Tonawanda plant, striking workers said they are determined to stick it out until they get a contract they can live with.

"They have great resolve," said Gil Herman, who lives in Amherst and has worked at the plant for about seven years. "They know what's on the line here."

Herman said it was difficult to picture when the strike began how long he and his fellow UAW members would be on the picket line. "Did I think there was some issues?" he said. "Big time. A lot of big issues that need to be resolved."

Among those issues: the status of temporary workers at GM plants, who receive far less benefits and lack a clear path to permanent employment. They also don't receive the annual profit-sharing checks – often amounting to thousands of dollars – that other hourly workers do. Some of the employees classified as temporary have been at the plant for five or six years, Herman said.

UAW members picket in front of a driveway at the Tonawanda engine plant on Monday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"You're working next to them. If I get something and they don't, it makes for hard feelings," he said. The UAW has also identified wages, health care, profit-sharing and job security as priorities in the negotiations.

The Center for Automotive Research said in New York State, the strike has led to weekly losses of $35.5 million in compensation, $4.2 million in lost weekly contributions for government social insurance and $5.8 million in lost weekly personal income taxes. GM has three manufacturing facilities in the state, in Tonawanda, Lockport and Rochester.

Gerald Johnson, GM's executive vice president of global manufacturing, recently sent a letter to GM employees, saying the automaker had "advised the union that it's critical that we get back to producing quality vehicles for our customers."

For UAW members, the strike hits home on a personal level. The UAW just raised the amount of their weekly strike benefit checks, to $275 from $250 previously. The UAW had planned to implement the 10% increase at the start of 2020, but moved up the hike to this week.

The UAW also authorized striking workers to take on part-time jobs without a reduction in their strike pay, as long as they perform their picket line duty. Previously, UAW rules barred striking workers from collecting their full strike benefit checks if they were earning more than that amount of money doing part-time work.

Striking workers didn't start collecting their strike paychecks until the 15th day of the walkout. And in New York State, striking workers can't receive state unemployment insurance until a walkout is seven weeks old. UAW members hope Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will sign legislation that would enable them to start collecting unemployment insurance immediately, said J.R. Baker, UAW Local 774's president.

"It would help our people right away," he said.

Jon Hamilton, employed the last six years as a driver, has help from his daughter Ruby, 2, and son Jack, 5, as he pickets in front of the GM engine plant on Monday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

On the picket line, striking workers have received a variety of donations, from food and water to rain gear and gift cards. They receive firewood to burn in barrels as the temperature drops.

"It really warms the heart," said Wence Valentin III, a Local 774 delegate and a former president. "We've got people texting us constantly, 'What do you need, what do you need?' "

FeedMore Western New York recently held mobile food pantries in Tonawanda and Lockport, and made an outreach to UAW families from the two GM plants.

The mobile distributions provided food to more than 100 households at the Lockport location, including to 70 individuals who identified themselves as UAW members, said Catherine Shick, a FeedMore WNY spokeswoman. At the Tonawanda mobile distribution, more than 60 individuals among the 150 households assisted said they were UAW members.

The next mobile distribution in Lockport will start at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Salvation Army in Lockport, 50 Cottage St. The next Tonawanda distribution is set for 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 22 at New Covenant Tabernacle, 345 McConkey Drive.

Valentin described the mood among the striking workers as "a strong sense of solidarity, optimism that we're close to a deal."

"I feel as though we haven't had as much solidarity at UAW 774 in a long, long time," he said. "This strike has actually built solidarity amongst the rank and file of the union."

Valentin said the strike's impact at the Tonawanda plant will go beyond the deal that emerges. He noted how workers who don't usually cross paths inside the vast plant, with different job descriptions and from different backgrounds, were picketing together.

"You're learning about people's families, and they're building camaraderie and solidarity," Valentin said. "I think that's great. We're going to back into the plant and we're going to be sticking together. This strike is going to be paying dividends to the UAW for years to come."

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