GM strike, Day 9: What picketing workers are saying in West Chester

A strike by General Motors employees, including those in Butler County, reached its ninth day Tuesday, and signs of community support were hard to miss.

Donations of firewood, charcoal, food and water sat in stacks under a tent pitched just outside the gates of GM’s distribution plant at 8752 Jacquemin Dr. in West Chester Twp.

United Auto Workers members who work at Ford’s Sharonville plant and MillerCoors Trenton Brewery have shown up during GM employees’ six-hour picket line shifts to show their support during the 24-hour, 7-day-a-week effort.

“The community gathered around us from all sectors, and it’s been really kind of incredible,” said Jared Laureano, of West Chester Twp., secretary-treasurer for UAW Local 674.

Laureano, who showed that support to Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke during a Tuesday morning stopover, said the strike is his generation’s way “holding General Motors accountable to support their workers,” which he said previous generations worked to do.

“It’s been really incredible to see now, in my generation. It’s our time to kind of keep that movement going,” he said.

Charlie Johnson, of Clermont County’s Union Twp., told O’Rourke the strike “had to happen.”

“General Motors backed us into a corner,” said Johnson, a 35-year employee of GM. “That’s what they do. My father started with General Motors in 1955 and I could call him and tell him what was happening in here and he could complete my sentences.”

“Not a lot” has changed in the way GM thinks about its workers, Johnson said.

“He said ‘You can make decent money there but only because the UAW will make them pay you,” he said.

Johnson said the current strike has lasted longer than one in the 1970s, but “it’s basically the same thing.”

“Different CEO, different board of directors, but they continue to use the same playbook,” he said.

Robert Johnston Jr., of Carlisle, said the strike was his sixth in 33 years with GM, but that UAW members are one family who are “just trying to live” and will stick up for each other.

One of the reasons GM employees are striking is to bring clarity to the company’s two-tier pay scale, according to Janet Billingsley, president of UAW Local 674.

Under that system, temporary workers have made $15 per hour for four or five years with no defined path to seniority while permanent workers make $30 per hour with both sides performing the same amount of work for the same amount of hours.

Changes in benefits also are necessary, especially at a time GM is making profits, she said.

Billingsley, who has worked for GM for 42 years, said the strike was the longest one in which she had participated, and one that is going to either “make or break the union,” as well as set a precedent for generations to come.

She said UAW Local 674 will rally at 2:30 p.m. today at the corner of Union Centre Boulevard and Jacquemin Drive with members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, plus employees from Ford, General Electric, MillerCoors, Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and “anybody else who wants to join us.”

Those making the lesser salary have faced financial difficulties during the strike, Laureano said.

“Some of the people were able to prepare, but other people making $15 an hour, it’s a little hard to put back enough to really pad yourself for longer than eight days,” Laureano said. “Some of these people don’t have enough for four days. That insurance, when they cut that off, that really hurts.”

By striking, workers are attempting to help “bridge the gap,” he said.

“Honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work,” Laureano said.

The American people bailed out General Motors at the end of the last decade “and now it’s their time to show up for us,” he said.

Laureano said showing support of unions is “a bipartisan issue.”

“The unions are important and they’re a stronghold in this United States and it’s important that both sides of the aisle show support for our unions and the American people.”

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said that as president, he would make it easier for Americans to organize, set a “much higher” minimum wage, ensure health care does not come with uncertainty and hold corporations like GM “accountable and responsible for the public investment we’ve made in them.”

“They’ve paid zero in taxes, made more than $8 billion in profit last year, were bailed out by the people of this country and the Ohio taxpayer especially has invested in the infrastructure around these plants and there’s a commitment on GM’s part that they have not fulfilled,” he said. “We’re going to hold them to account for that.”

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