They had not expected a strike this year. And when they walked out midway through the morning shift on Monday, the workers at the General Motors pickup truck plant here had no idea how long their walkout would last.
But as they walked the picket lines, most said they knew why they were there.
“We’re fighting for our lives,” said Ed Demetrak, 52, a 30-year GM employee. “There isn’t any of us that are making bonuses. We’re just trying to etch out a living for our families. We’re not rich men.”
Workers at the truck plant in Pontiac, about 25 miles north of Detroit, have been through this before. A few were already working for GM in 1970, the last time the United Automobile Workers union called a national strike against the automaker. Most worked there 10 years ago, when job cuts led to strikes at that plant and others.
The workers said Monday that they were trying to prepare themselves for the possibility of spending months out of work again, but hoped that word of a contract agreement would arrive any minute.
“The only tool we’ve got left is a strike,” said Demetrak, an employee assistance professional at the plant. “Nobody wants it; it’s not good for anybody. But it’s all we’ve got.”
Demetrak said he was disappointed to find himself on a picket line, earning $200 a week from the UAW instead of a full paycheck from GM, but he does not blame union leaders for putting him there. He and others said they had full confidence in the union’s president, Ron Gettelfinger, who compared GM’s approach at the bargaining table to being “pushed off a cliff.”
Salaried workers continued to stream in and out through the picket lines here. Around 2 p.m., a man driving into the plant struck a female hourly worker with his minivan, injuring her leg.
As the woman was taken away in an ambulance, she gave co-workers a thumbs-up signal and the paramedics flashed a V for victory sign as they drove past. There was a kind of nervous lightheartedness in the early hours of the strike. Drivers honked as they zipped past the factory, and several businesses down the street dropped off free pizzas and icy bottles of water.
“You’re never happy about a strike; neither side wins,” said Ken Gunther, 49, as he carried a picket sign that read in part, “GM doesn’t care.”
“Everybody looks pretty jovial, but we don’t want to be out here,” he said. “It’s a very nervous time right now.”
The reaction to the strike was similar at GM plants and union halls across the country, as workers spent the afternoon carrying picket signs and chatting nervously about their future.
Any other day, Greg Kelly said he would be preparing for his evening shift at GM’s assembly plant in Hamtramck, Mich., a largely Polish community surrounded by Detroit, but instead he stood on a corner facing the plant entrance holding a video camera to his eye.
“I’m recording all this for my grandchildren,” said Kelly, a 29-year GM veteran. “I don’t want them to see a news clip, I want them to see the whole thing. I want them to see what is one of the worst times in history for autoworkers, it’s that bad.”