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United Auto Workers Trying To Live On Less Than Half Their Normal Pay During Strike


The UAW strike against General Motors is now in its fourth week. That makes it the longest most workers have seen in their lifetimes. While the workers are on strike, they have to survive on only $250 per week in strike pay. For even the lowest-paid union members, that is less than half their normal pay. Michigan Radio's Dustin Dwyer reports on how some workers are coping with the challenge.

DUSTIN DWYER, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, I was in the union hall for UAW Local 167, which represents a GM parts plant in Wyoming, Mich., and I met a guy in a navy blue T-shirt and a ball cap named Joshua Averill. At that point, the strike was on, but he hadn't yet missed a paycheck. He could clearly see it coming, though.

JOSHUA AVERILL: It's breaking me. I mean, quite literally, I'm broke. But I wouldn't change that.

DWYER: This week I caught up with Averill again walking the picket line just after he got his second strike paycheck.

AVERILL: Well, it ain't no better than that. There ain't - this week's check will pay the electric bill. So that's far as it goes - one bill at a time.

DWYER: And going forward, some of those bills just won't get paid.

AVERILL: I called the electric company this morning and told them our company is out on strike with UAW-GM, and I just don't have it.

DWYER: Back inside the union hall, workers have been able to pick up their strike paychecks the past two weeks.


WILLIE HOLMES: You sign for it already?

DWYER: Willie Holmes is the president of this local.

HOLMES: I always tell them 250 is better than no-50.

DWYER: For a lot of workers, it's also more than they'd collect from unemployment insurance. Many states don't allow striking workers to collect unemployment anyway. But Holmes says at his plant, many of the senior workers have enough savings to get by, and some are donating their strike checks to other members who don't have that kind of savings.

HOLMES: I said sure. I said, it won't be hard to find somebody who's going to take 250 because, you know, we've had - I've heard a lot of stories in this last week - evictions, car payments, rent, bank won't work with me and the whole gamut (ph). So you know, we do what we can. But I had our financial guys here for that specific reason - to, like, guide them and lead them and show them how to go through this process.

DWYER: And it's not just the UAW members who've been affected. One estimate from the Michigan-based Anderson Economic Group says when you add in suppliers and others connected to GM, there are about 150,000 workers affected by this strike.

Across Michigan, the United Way says there have been hundreds of calls from workers needing help, everything from locations of food pantries to help with utility bills and rent. Teresa Kmetz leads the Capital Area United Way in Lansing, Mich. There are two GM plants in the area and many other plants that supply them. Kmetz says calls have been coming in for assistance.

TERESA KMETZ: A majority of our early calls - these early calls are from employees at supplier plants. I think the longer that they are out, the more we'll see an increase in needs.

DWYER: The strike is already the longest against General Motors in nearly half a century, and it appears there's no end in sight. Over the weekend, the UAW's top negotiator with GM said talks had taken a turn for the worse. On the picket line, Joshua Averill says he'll hold out as long as he has to.

AVERILL: I have to be optimistic. I have to be 'cause anything else just makes it bad. And it's not. We're making history, and we're making everybody's life better.

DWYER: Averill hopes the strike results in better pay and better job security, especially for GM's temp workers. And in the end, he thinks the eventual agreement will set a standard for other workers outside the union. That, he says, would be worth the difficulty of living on $250 a week.

For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Grand Rapids, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter for a new project at Michigan Radio that will look at improving economic opportunities for low-income children. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.