‘Trying to set the example’
CLARA BATES, Missouri Independent
WENTZVILLE — Adam Purfeerst has been standing along the edge of Highway A in Wentzville for hours, lifting his picket sign and waving to passing drivers, whose staccato honks and loud blares punctuate the Thursday afternoon.
“We’re fighting for the working class in general,” said Purfeest, a General Motors assembly line worker for the last 11 years.
“The last year or so, the last two years, it’s been hard to survive,” he said, “and that’s for anybody.”
Members of the United Auto Workers, or UAW, have been stationed on concrete islands outside five sets of gates that enclose a sprawling General Motors assembly plant in Wentzville, 40 miles west of St. Louis, for the last week. Their demands include higher pay and benefits, an end to a tiered system of employment and better treatment for temporary workers.
The plant was among the first three that UAW leadership selected to go on strike after contract negotiations with the companies failed.
It’s the first time workers at all of the “Big Three” Detroit-based automakers have gone on strike at the same time in the union’s 88-year history: The others selected last week were a Ford factory in Michigan and Stellantis plant in Ohio.
President of the UAW, Shawn Fain, announced Friday that workers at 38 auto parts plants around the country will join the strike. It’s part of a strategy leadership is calling a “stand-up” strike, calling to action plants in ways that keep the companies guessing and give the union room to escalate.
“We’ve said for weeks: We’re not going to wait around forever for a fair contract at the Big Three,” Fain said Friday. “The companies know how to make this right.”
Glenn Kage, legislative chair and former president for the local UAW chapter in Wentzville said workers are “standing strong 100% behind international leadership in the quest for a fair and equitable contract.”
“The members are fired up,” Kage said.
Tiered wages and benefits
Around 13,000 UAW workers went on strike at three manufacturing plants beginning last week, including 3,700 from Wentzville, which builds midsize trucks and full-size vans. Those include the popular Chevrolet Colorado and Express Vans, along with GMC Canyon and Savana.
There are around 150,000 UAW members total at those companies.
Many of the union’s demands are benefits they’re trying to restore after concessions made during the Great Recession, when automakers teetered on the brink of collapse.
Chief among the union’s demands is an end to what’s called a tiered employment system, implemented in 2007 to cut costs. Those hired after 2007 take longer to reach the same level of pay as those hired before 2007. Lower-tier workers receive worse health benefits as opposed to legacy employees.
There are also temporary workers, who the union wants to become full-time more quickly, and to increase their pay and benefits.
Cassandra Pruitt has little to gain herself from the strike — but she delayed retiring to strike for better treatment for other workers, especially newer ones.
It’s her 32nd year with GM, and Pruitt planned to retire earlier this year, but wanted to wait to see how contract negotiations would go.
“Their pensions, cost of living, all the benefits — I know if I didn’t have what I had when I was young, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said, pointing to health insurance specifically. “Everybody should deserve the same thing.”
“Everything they give us in benefits, we need,” she said.
Pruitt works in quality control now but was on the assembly line for 20 years and it was hard on her body, she said. One day she was bruised all the way across her chest from the power of the tools she worked with.
Other workers described the pain of standing all day on the assembly line, fastening on right hand doors to cars for years on end, for instance, causing their hands and backs to ache — with some saying their bodies couldn’t handle taking overtime.
Pruitt hopes GM gives the union what they want soon, she said.
“Once this is over,” she said, “I can go.”
‘Not the way it should be’
Union leadership has argued inflation has outpaced wage growth for workers, but not executives. GM chief executive Mary Barra made $29 million last year — up by 34% since 2019.
The $16 to $32 hourly wage at General Motors hasn’t increased in pace with inflation, Purfeest said.
Even at the maxed out $32 per hour, Purfeest said, he’s had to make difficult spending decisions because of higher costs — and he’s worried about retirement.
Weekly strike pay, from the union, is $500 — a sacrifice from his typical $850-$900 per week take home pay, Purfeest said, which has made him nervous. But he is hopeful it will be worth it — particularly to ensure every worker gets health insurance benefits.
“He’s really fighting for us big time,” Purfeest said about Fain, who was elected earlier this year in part on a platform of reversing concessions the union made during the recession.
GM and the union are in negotiations but the union has so far rejected GM’s offer.
GM said their offer is an “unprecedented economic proposal for our UAW-represented team members, ensuring both their well-being and the future success of GM.”
Fain called it “an insulting proposal that doesn’t come close to an equitable agreement for America’s autoworkers.”
Nick Greco, who has been working at the body shop in the plant for eight years, says the workers “need more work-life balance.” He said many of his coworkers have second or third jobs to make ends meet.
“They want to say they can’t afford it but we know they can,” Greco said, of GM leadership. “…a lot of what they’ve been making has just gone to the shareholders.”
“We work at big three and a lot of us still have to have multiple jobs just to make it by and that’s not the way it should be,” Greco said.
GM said Thursday the company is “continuing to bargain in good faith with the union to reach an agreement as quickly as possible”
GM temporarily laid off around 2,000 workers at Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kan., earlier this week, pointing to a shortage of product from the Wentzville plant. The UAW is offering laid-off workers the $500 per week as well.
Purfeerst said because the GM autoworkers are unionized, they have the leverage that workers suffering across swaths of the economy lack.
“That’s why we’re trying to set the example,” he said. “Not only us but for other companies.”