WENTZVILLE, MISSOURI — Four of the five gated entrances to General Motors’ Wentzville factory face a busy highway. All day, striking workers have enjoyed a near-constant chorus of honks, waves, and “Keep it up!” yelled out windows — aside from one woman who flipped them the bird, says Matthew Bergman, a nine-year veteran at GM who’s serving as gate captain for the strike. He manages logistics at the gate and handles on-site media requests and any approaching vehicles. Bergman leads the picketers in Local 2250’s chant: “Two, two!” he calls. “Five, oh!” they yell back.
It’s the third day of the United Auto Workers’ “stand-up strike,” an escalatory strategy designed to push the “Big Three” automakers — GM, Ford and Chrysler parent company Stellantis — to meet the UAW’s demands in negotiations for a new labor agreement. The Wentzville assembly plant is one of the three locations selected to launch the strike, alongside a Jeep factory in Toledo, Ohio (owned by Chrysler) and a Ford factory in Wayne, Mich. It’s the first time in UAW’s 88-year history the union has struck all three companies at once.
When the previous contract expired at 11 p.m. Thursday (midnight in Detroit), workers left in the middle of their shifts. The strike locations had been revealed just two hours before.
“I watched our [union] president’s Facebook Live video of him saying our plant,” says Bergman, cracking a smile at the memory. “It gave me goosebumps. I was proud that we got picked. We were the International’s first draft pick. So, proud moment.”
GM’s Wentzville assembly plant is the only one in North America that produces the Chevrolet Colorado and Express, and the GMC Canyon and Savana. For that reason, a few workers told In These Times they weren’t surprised the plant was selected. Several others had expected GM’s most profitable factory in Arlington, Texas to go first.
“Nobody wanted to be on strike but we also want what we deserve,” says Bergman, who recently reached top-tier status, meaning his pay has topped out at $32.32 an hour. No matter how many more years he works for the company, the raises fought for in each new labor contract are the only rate increases he will receive. “We put our hearts and souls into these vehicles, we do the record-breaking profits, and we deserve it. If this is a short [strike], it’s gonna be a short one. If it’s gonna be a long one, 2250’s gonna be out here for the long run. We’re strong, we’ve got the resources, and we’ll be out here until we get what we want.”
The UAW is asking for significant raises, as well as cost-of-living adjustments, more paid time off, better terms for temporary workers and the end of a “two-tier” system that gives new hires a worse deal. In Wentzville, picketers mention the raises and “two-tier” issue as priorities in nearly every conversation, along with paid time off.
On Monday, September 18, UAW President Shawn Fain, who was elected in March on a reform slate with promises of renewed union militance, announced he’d call on more locations to strike if “serious progress” isn’t made towards an agreement.
The set-up at each gate is still sparse, just water or Gatorade in coolers, donuts, chips and other snacks. By the end of the 40-day 2019 strike against GM, several workers tell In These Times, there were bonfires and barbecues. The priority for that contract, they say, was to move temp workers to permanent status. The union won some gains for temps, including transitioning newly hired temps to permanent positions in two years or less, but not much else.
During the Saturday afternoon shift from 2-6 p.m., picketers order St. Louis’ signature Imo’s Pizza and play music on a loudspeaker. Chris West, 26, teasingly asks the designated DJ to switch from country music to R&B. West started at the Wentzville plant in 2021 at $16.25 as a temp and converted to a permanent worker after eight or nine months. He now makes just over $18 an hour.
“My dad motivated me,” says West. “I always wanted to pick up trades, whether it had to do construction or automotive vehicles.”
“He’s a natural-born grease monkey,” smiles his father, Louis West, 58, who has worked at the factory for almost a decade. He limps slightly, occasionally shifting his weight onto his picket sign. He says he has a pinched nerve in his back, but he talked his doctor into letting him walk the picket line anyway.
Louis started at the plant in 2014 at $15.76, a few years after his brother — Chris’s uncle — began working there. In all, 12 members of their family currently work at the Wentzville factory. Chris is a third-generation auto worker, Louis says proudly, adding that most of their family has either worked in the automotive industry or postal service, with deep ties to unions. Today, he makes just under $30 an hour. When their picketing shift ends, the father and son pair honk their support as they leave. Chris rolls his window down and reaches out a single arm in farewell to his union siblings.
During the Saturday evening shift from 6-10 p.m., CNN’s now-infamous Friday interview with GM’s CEO Mary Barra is mentioned among a circle of men with picket signs resting on their shoulders. Barra’s reportedly $29 million salary comes up.
“Why don’t you cut your salary, Mary?” asks one.
“Yeah, did you see that interview?” comments another. “They got her in that interview.” CNN had asked Barra why the company couldn’t afford 40% raises for the workers, given that her own compensation had jumped 34% in four years.
“Yeah, she wasn’t ready for that,” smirks a third, to laughter.
Every worker who spoke with In These Times said the same thing: This contract is about securing the workplace wins that union members gave up to keep the company afloat after the financial crash in 2007 and 2008.
“Everybody’s been waiting on GM to give us everything back that we gave up so long ago and they’ve been talking about it and we’ve been talking about it, but I don’t think UAW ever made a serious pitch at, ‘We want this and we want it now,’” says William Thomas, a gate captain who has been at the Wentzville plant for five years. “And I think this is the first time they’ve done that, and that’s why it feels more important than it did [in 2019].”
As we’re talking, a man with a head of silvery-white hair saunters over, tilts his picket sign across his chest and runs his fingers along the front to mimic a guitar. Thomas calls him “silver fox,” and the two chuckle.
After being hired as a temp in 2019 at $16.63 an hour, Thomas says, he converted to a permanent position in 2021 and now makes $24.40 an hour.
“It’s disheartening for a guy to work 10, 12, 15, 20, 25, 30 years at a company and then you wake up and realize, they don’t give a fuck about you,” says Thomas. “That’s a hurtful feeling. You put your life into this place and you wake up and realize they don’t give a damn about you.”
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