Walking the Picket Line

Tonight, 5,000 more GM workers at a parts plant in Flint, Mich., will decide whether to go out on strike, joining the Flint Metal Center workers who have been on the picket line for eight days now. If, as expected, they vote to walk out over what they consider GM’s broken promises on job security, all of the company’s assembly plants will shut down within a few days. If you want to buy a GM car or truck it might actually be fairly difficult to do so a couple of weeks from now.

Although the Flint strike is partly the product of the UAW’s resistance to GM’s continued efforts to outsource parts production and to bring its labor costs in line with those of Ford and Chrysler, it’s also a more old-fashioned struggle about the control of the factory floor. GM contends that union work rules have hampered productivity improvements at the plant by preventing managers from shifting workers into different jobs. For its part, the union says the company has backed away from a promise to spend $300 million upgrading the plant and that GM is also ignoring a startling large number of work grievances. In no small part, then, what this is all about is who has real control of the way work gets done on an everyday basis in the plant.

Not in my job description.
Union work rules have their roots in legitimate concerns about management’s ability to speed up assembly lines and to move workers around without any consultation with the workers themselves. But in this country, at least, rigid work rules have done more damage to labor’s public image than anything except overpaid union bosses and Teamsters corruption. For many Americans, “union member” conjures up a picture of some electrician refusing to move a TV camera three feet because it’s not “his job.” And that fact means that garnering public support for a union’s justifiable desire to have some control over the working conditions of its members is a difficult task at best.

Making that task more difficult is the normalization of strike activity that I wrote about yesterday. Even more important, I suspect, is the striking absence of in-depth labor reporting from most U.S. newspapers. The dearth of labor coverage has been much commented upon and lamented by what remains of the U.S. left. But the disappearance of labor reporting is important not just because of its political implications. It also matters because of the way it distorts our picture of things like the Flint walkout, making a massive strike look much more mundane than it really is.

What’s missing from this picture?
However tactical and controlled a strike is, after all, and however much of a willful dance GM and the UAW are engaged in, actually going on strike is not an easy thing for workers to do. Seventeen days–which is how long the 1996 Dayton strike lasted–is not forever, but it’s a long time to be out of work, especially when you have no idea when you’ll be returning. And taking a pay cut from $25 an hour to $150 a week makes a material difference in the lives of striking workers. Finally, and most imprecisely, going on strike is transgressive in a way that very few middle-class actions ever have the chance to be. Even with a union like the UAW, which is effectively part of the “establishment” (whatever that means), striking is a direct challenge to the status quo, and there is inevitably something scary about that for the workers involved.

The point is not that direct challenges to the status quo are inherently valuable, or that all strikes are good because they allow workers to stand up for themselves. The merit–or lack thereof–of the rationale for the Flint walkout has nothing to do with how UAW workers are experiencing it. But how UAW workers are experiencing the strike is nonetheless important. And the failure of the business press to illuminate the emotional and political aspects of the walkout means that we end up missing something important about what it’s actually like to make cars for GM and about what it’s like to feel frustrated enough to walk a picket line. It means simply that our picture of the way people spend their working lives is much more attenuated and impoverished than it should be.