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Bucks County, PA – When Russ Oxley read on Facebook that a group of striking autoworkers needed firewood to keep warm, he loaded his GMC pickup and drove to the picket line outside a General Motors warehouse.
The rain-soaked workers gratefully accepted the donation and threw some wood on the fire they had been working on since last week, when they walked out of their auto-parts warehouse in a strike for better pay and benefits.
,The CEO and everybody at the top has all the money,” said Oxley, 68, a retired truck driver wearing a Harley Davidson hat who last joined a union at age 18. “But those at the bottom barely get anything.”
The fire involved Selvin Sandoval, a striking worker who made $31 an hour after spending ten years stacking goods on warehouse shelves and sending parts to GM dealerships for vehicle repairs. Sandoval often works ten or twenty hours of overtime a week to support his wife and three children.
“Without overtime, it would be extremely difficult,” said Sandoval, who recently clocked a 74-hour week. “I pretty much work every hour they give me.”
The United Auto Workers began its strike two weeks ago in a targeted manner against GM, Ford and jeep-maker Stellantis, shutting down three factories that assemble popular SUVs and pickup trucks. Last week, the union expanded the action to 38 parts warehouses across the country, extending the work stoppage in a way that will affect more drivers – those trying to get their cars fixed.
So far, Bucks County residents are mostly sympathetic to the workers. Some expressed concern about how the strike would affect auto prices and availability, but most who spoke to The Washington Post said they support working people standing up for better pay in an era of rising income inequality. We do.
The scene here in Bucks County – a famous swing county on the northern edge of the Philadelphia suburbs – may give an indication of how voters will view the strike and its potential economic impact ahead of the election year. Bucks County went for President Biden in 2020, but Republicans also came out strong, re-electing Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick to Congress.
Both Biden and former President Donald Trump have been speaking publicly about the job closures this week, hoping to convince union voters and Americans generally that they are on the side of the working class.
On Wednesday, Trump is scheduled to speak at a non-union auto parts manufacturer in a suburb of Detroit, instead of attending the Republican presidential debate. On Tuesday, Biden stood with UAW President Sean Fain in front of a GM parts warehouse in Wayne, Michigan, telling the strikers they “earned” more than they are paid today.
Biden, in historic but sensitive move, joins UAW picket line
GM warehouse workers hired after 2015 are stuck at a lower wage level, starting at about $17 an hour and maxing out at $25, which is less than the $18 to $32 range for full-time vehicle-assembly workers . GM’s current offer to the UAW would raise warehouse workers up to assembly worker wages, a reform that Fain welcomed in a September 22 Facebook Live address. But he said GM’s offer is still unacceptable because the company is refusing to give the union the job-protection provisions or regular cost-of-living adjustments in pay that the UAW is seeking.
GM has called its offer, which also includes a 20 percent raise over four years for full-time employees, the best in the company’s 115-year history.
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Working class wages are clearly an issue that resonated with Bucks County voters of all political leanings, who expressed frustration about the growing gap between rich and poor.
At the Langhorne Coffee House, a ten-minute drive from the striking workers, Sherry Chrisenberry was having breakfast with two friends from church this week.
“I think there’s been such a huge disparity between management and labor for years and years,” said the self-described liberal voter. “I think most people are sympathetic to union workers because the inequality is so great… Every industry needs a little evening out.”
Karen Marquis, her friend at church, said she had seen the strikers while driving past the warehouse the previous day. Marquis, who describes herself as a moderate Republican who never supported Trump And voted for Biden in the last election, remembering his recent lecture at his Unitarian church about economic justice.
Marquis said, “I think most people would be sympathetic to saying that a person should be paid in proportion to the success of the business.” “The people who are producing the product are the reason the business is successful.”
,I’m generally sympathetic – unless, of course, I want to go and buy a car,” Marquis said, laughing.
At the next table, Randy Hipps, a longtime conservative and Trump supporter who is in the market for a used Chevy Suburban, said he’s a little concerned about how the strike might affect auto prices. He is also concerned that Detroit manufacturers are losing ground to foreign automakers with lower labor costs. But he said he supports UAW workers fighting for more.
“They should get what they deserve and be able to maximize their talents and be paid what they’re worth,” said Hipps, who sells deli produce in supermarkets.
Maintaining public support for the strike will be important, especially if it drags on, said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor and labor expert at Washington University in St. Louis. He said he was surprised by the high level of public approval so far among adults who are not union members, citing polls that show 2-to-1 support among that population. “This level of support for such potentially disruptive industrial action is really impressive,” he said.
Why do UAW workers say they are on strike?
The UAW stressed that car prices have already reached record highs in recent years, driven by pandemic-related market fluctuations and automakers’ increased focus on more expensive vehicles.
Fain said the union is targeting GM and Stellantis parts warehouses in part because they generate so much profit for the companies. As he announced the new strike targets last week, he also acknowledged that some car owners may experience delays when they need repairs. The way to “fix the disappointing customer experience” is for companies to invest their “record profits in stable jobs and sustainable wages and benefits,” he said during a Facebook Live address on September 22.
Kelly MacKinnon, a warehouse worker who was on strike Tuesday, said the disruption in delivery of parts means “everyone will be affected.” He said that he hopes that the public will be in favor of the workers. “We need their help — the public — to help us bounce back a little bit,” he said.
GM dealerships in Bucks County are the most alert about the strike.
Joshua Jones, assistant parts manager at O’Neill Buick-GMC in Warminster, said in recent weeks he ordered $20,000 worth of additional parts, including additional oil filters and air filters, to keep his dealership well-stocked for several months . During the last UAW strike against GM in 2019, he said, significant portions of the dealership were lost, forcing him to “pitch to other dealers” for help.
Jones, who generally supports Democrats, said he doesn’t feel particularly sympathetic toward workers or companies. “I don’t think either side is realistic,” he said. “I think it’s mostly just greed on both sides.”
Wearing an Eagles jersey to watch Monday Night Football at a local sports bar, Chris Kinsey, an advertising agency editor, described himself as “very pro-union” and fully supportive of the strike. Asked if he was worried about car prices rising, he dismissed the concern.
“I don’t think we should be worried about this kind of thing,” he said. “I think we should be concerned about Americans who earn a living.”