As United Auto Workers Union members in the Local 31 at the GM Fairfax Assembly plant in Kansas continue to make regional headlines for entering their fifth week of a strike, those out of work, including families across the Northland are feeling the pinch of going without a full paycheck for more than a month.
“We have a lot of members in the Northland. We have all over in Kearney, in Smithville, down around my area in Lawson, Liberty, all over up here,” said Local 31 Bargaining Chair and Northlander John McEntire. “... This doesn’t just impact the UAW members though. For every auto worker, there’s seven to 10 jobs that it affects. For example, suppliers — if we aren’t working, they aren’t working and those people are around the area as well.”
The Local 31 includes more than 2,000 members. Across the nation, there are more than 49,000 hourly workers represented by the UAW. At the Kansas plant, workers produce the Chevrolet Malibu. UAW members have been striking against GM across the nation since mid-September, halting production at 35 GM plants nationwide. UAW members, including those from the Northland, have been taking to picket lines in a fight for better health care, wages, temporary employees and job security.
As a single father of two teenage boys, one of which also works for GM, Jamie Skaar of Kearney said the strike, while necessary, has been rough on his family.
“There’s a lot of cabin fever, a lot of penny pinching, we’ve had to use Harvester’s (food bank for food assistance),” he said.
Skaar proudly hails from a long line of UAW members. While his union is good about preparing members for pending strikes, his chosen career path isn’t without uncertainty.
“It’s very nerve-racking. I went through a plant closing in Janesville, Wisconsin. I was out of work for 13 months before I was able to be transferred. I’ve lost a home in Wisconsin to foreclosure because it couldn’t sell,” he said, adding since this strike began, in addition to using the regional food bank, he has take a small bank loan to stay afloat.
“That made my house payment last month. … My priority is my house. I will not lose my house,” he said.
Rick Culver of Kearney, father of one of the high school’s standout, multi-sport female athletes, said he, like other families, has financially prepared the best they could, but the longer the strike goes on, the harder it is. Culver said his daughter is a senior and it’s tough to balance cutbacks and making sure she doesn’t miss out on all the experiences preparing to graduate high school brings.
“You have to try and make smart decisions and not put those stresses on the kids because it impacts them as well,” he said.
Culver said he has taken the opportunity to explain the stakes of the strike with his children.
“These things we are doing are not just about now, but are things that will have impacts five, 10 years from now,” he said. “It’s not just a fight for UAW or the Local 31, it’s a fight for the middle class. … We cannot survive without a middle class.”
Culver said UAW members take pride in their work and aren’t looking for handouts but proper compensation for a job well done.
“We just want to build quality cars we’re known for, but want to rewarded for it,” he said.
For Team Leader Matthew James of Kearney, a fellow 20-year GM veteran, he said this isn’t his first strike but is “certainly the longest.”
While he has been an autoworker for long enough to know to plan ahead financially and not live beyond his means, having a family of 10 and being without pay for more than a month, he said, is starting to hit his family, adding things like health insurance changes because he isn’t working are hard to deal with.
“... That’s a lot of responsibility,” he said.
While he is out of work, bills need to be paid and his family still must be fed and clothed.
“As an average citizen, I’d much rather be working. But, if we hold the line on pay and benefits, that may work itself out to the rest of the workforce,” he said.
Despite having a large family, James said he is fortunate because his wife, who was working part time and then homeschooling the children, was able to go back to full-time work as a nurse to help offset income losses. As a result, he has taken over homeschooling.
Sacrifices the family has had to make, James said, includes figuring out what the family can live without.
“Maybe the cable goes away. Maybe someone goes without a cellphone,” he said, adding he is going without a cellphone.
The strike hit Nathan Atkinson of Kearney and his family doubly hard as his daughter also works for GM. His wife and another child also are autoworkers, but at Ford.
“The union tells you to prepare and expect the unexpected,” he said. “You could strike locally or nationally, so it’s one of things where you have to be prepared for that.”
Atkinson said his family is fortunate that his wife is still working and has taken over some of the bills so they are not as hard hit as some GM families, but that they did have cut back on discretionary spending and are watching what they buy at the grocery store and may have to make other sacrifices if the negotiations aren’t settled soon.
“If they don’t figure it out soon, I’m going to have to make a new plan,” he said.
Jim Hurley of Holt, like Atkinson, said he is not as hard hit as other GM workers but it because he has a homestead where he raises meat and a garden that provides food for his family. He said he knows other who have had to look for part-time work to try and make ends meet.
“People think we have it easy, but most people don’t realize the benefits they have came from a fight on behalf of the union,” he said.
Skaar said autoworkers have hard jobs that are physically demanding and they need benefits like good health care because the work takes it toll on the human body.
“People will say, ‘Oh, you all have great benefits. Well, it is because we’ve had to fight for those benefits. … My dad put his blood, sweat and tears into getting those benefits,” he said, adding most people do not realize it, but it was because of unions like the UAW and their organization and striking that most people today have 40-hour work weeks and benefits like lunch time and other breaks.
Skaar said autoworkers are skilled laborers and that they are fighting for concessions they made back in the economic collapse of the mid-2000s that were promised to be given back after GM rebonded after the government bailout.
“We’re not being greedy. I think if people see what we’re fighting for, maybe others will then fight for themselves, too.”
In addition to UAW workers picketing, other union members such as Teamsters and teachers in addition to elected officials and friends, families and others have joined UAW picket lines across the nation in a show of solidarity.
“We’re having a tremendous amount of support because of what we are fighting for. We aren’t just fighting for our benefits, our wages or the just the temporary people that are there, we are fighting for the working families of this country as well. This is not just about the union, this is about a living wage for most people,” said Clarence Brown, president of the Local 31. “If they break us, if we fold, it’s going to come over and eat all those other people alive. This is about the communities we live in and work in as well.”
Atkinson said the support the Kearney community has especially showed, including the school district, which let families know of food assistance options available, has made UAW members feels supported.
McEntire said he appreciates all of the community support that has come the UAW’s way.
In addition to the union, area food pantries, school districts, businesses and individuals across the region and country have been providing donations of meals, gift cards, hygiene products, diapers and a host of other items to help UAW workers who are cash-strapped while on strike.
“It’s just been really awesome to see everyone coming together to show their support. We really appreciate that,” he said.
While picketing has been tough, McEntire said it is making autoworkers stronger as a group.
“That is one interesting thing about the picket lines; it’s letting us UAW members get to know each other and it’s making our morale stronger. It’s great because we have retired members who are coming out and picketing and talking with younger members about what they’ve gone through and how things have changed and are educating them.”