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UAW Pickets GM as Strike Deadline Passes

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Officials from a United Auto Workers local in Detroit say their members are on strike against General Motors. The announcement came in the last half hour as a strike deadline passed and marathon negotiations on a new contract apparently failed to yield an agreement. The union's national leadership has not publicly announced a strike. The UAW and GM have been in historic contract talks over issues that could fundamentally change the U.S. auto industry. But with workers off the job in places, the status of those talks is unclear.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering this story and joins us from UAW Local 22 in Detroit. And Frank, what do we know about the walkout?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, so far, what we know here at Local 22 is they were waiting at 11 o'clock to hear from the national union, to hear whether they should go on strike or not. And they had told all their workers down at the Cadillac plant about 10 minutes from here that if we don't hear anything, we're walking. And so, around 11:05, George McGregor - he runs the union here. He came out saying, we're walking. And since then, tons of people have been coming in getting their strike assignments here in the front lobby of the UAW local.

MONTAGNE: So this is one local, and there are reports that other locals around the country have walked out. But is this a surprise?

LANGFITT: It is. I think that people see the union as very weak. You know, not so long ago back in the 70s and early 80s, it was 1.5 million. Now it's down to maybe a third of that. GM is trying to do a turnaround, and they've lost billions of dollars last year. So a lot of people thought a strike could hurt both sides, and they saw this, really, by the union as a negotiating tactic, and it may still well be. You know, this strike could go on for three hours. It could go on for a number of days. We just don't know. We'll have to see exactly where it goes from here.

MONTAGNE: So this doesn't mean that the talks have necessarily broken down. They may still be - they're in these marathon talks, they may still be talking.

LANGFITT: Well, we haven't heard from either side, so we don't know that they've stopped talking. What we do know is there's a big sticking point over job security. The union wants guarantees that there are going to be new products in the United States for their workers. And what, of course, the GM wants is to take this huge health care obligations in the area of about $50 billion and have the union take it over in a trust fund. But the union may have a really hard time selling that to retirees, so it's looking for job guarantees. And that's where things seem to have been running aground for the last few days.

MONTAGNE: And their - the last strike of even just a couple of locals was 10 years ago. The last national strike was 30 years ago by the UAW. What would be the impact of a strike that lasts more than a few days and one that's a real national strike?

LANGFITT: Well, it could be disastrous. I mean, in a few days, GM has a lot of inventory, so it can continue to sell cars. It has cars on its dealer lot. But if it goes a lot longer, it's really - you know, GM is in a lot of trouble. It's in the process of this turnaround, but it's been battered so hard by Toyota and the last thing it needs is to not have any workers. It could also backfire to the union. You know, the GM has more or less said if it doesn't get these concessions on health care benefits for retirees from the union, it may be looking to send more and more jobs overseas. And so that could be a really, really tough hit for this union, because it's been losing membership now for many, many years.

Again, just to go back to something that you mentioned at the top, at this point, The Associated Press is reporting there are at least four other plants that are on strike, and we're going to have to watch in the next few hours to see if indeed this is a nationwide strike.

MONTAGNE: Well, we'll be following this story as it continues. NPR's Frank Langfitt, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it.

MONTAGNE: Reporting from UAW Local 22 in Detroit. The news this hour, local UAW officials in Detroit say their members are on strike against General Motors. The union's national leadership has not announced a national strike.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.