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Former UAW member reflects on 2008 strike in KCK

Posted at 9:31 PM, Sep 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-19 22:31:29-04

KANSAS CITY, Ks. - — As the nationwide United Automobile Workers strike stretched into a fourth day Thursday, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly visited with union members on the picket line while calling for a settlement with General Motors.

The strike began late Sunday night and groups of UAW members have picketed outside of the GM plant along Fairfax Trafficway around the clock ever since.

After speaking with dozens of UAW members outside the plant, Kelly told 41 Action News that it was becoming more crucial to end the strike.

“What we need to do is get the union and GM back at the table and negotiate a settlement that works for everybody,” she said. “It’s very important that our large industries keep functioning and we keep them contributing. They’re the ones ultimately paying for our roads and paying for our schools. We need to get this settled.”

While Kelly noted the hardship that UAW members have faced as a result of the strike, she also spoke of the economic contributions General Motors makes in Kansas.

“I think GM has been a tremendous partner in this state and a huge economic development force in the state,” she said. “I’m anxious for them to get together and get this resolved so we can start building cars again.”

Seeing the picket lines and groups of workers on strike this week brought back memories for longtime UAW member David Gamel.

A member of the local union for more than 30 years, Gamel helped negotiate a deal in 2008 after a strike at the Fairfax plant that lasted around three weeks.

“We were negotiating for 16 to 18 hours a day sometimes during that strike,” he said. “As far as your stress, you don’t even realize it until you get out of there and unwind for a bit.”

Gamel said strikes bring plenty of hardships for union members who make a fraction of their usual income during that time.

“You’re cutting your pay to a third or a quarter and trying to support your family,” he said. “What do you do for food? Go stand on the street corner?”

With another strike now shutting down the plant 11 years later, he said union members were facing even greater stress after General Motors stopped paying for its workers' health coverage.

“It’s out of pocket and you’re only getting $200 a week,” he said. “It could be that one doctor's visit.”

As negotiations continued Thursday, Kansas City Labor Beacon writer Kevin O’Neill said the 2019 strike had similarities to the 2008 strike.

“It’s the same issues; it’s wages and benefits,” he said. “There were a lot of promises given back then that when things get better, so will the wages. That never happened.”

O’Neill said General Motors recovered well from the 2008 strike after seeing big profits.

With unions now dealing with challenges like jobs leaving the country and Right to Work legislation, he said strikes like the one happening now could become more common.

“We haven’t had a lot of strikes in the last 10, 15 years,” O’Neill said. “They’re going to start increasing, because it’s becoming obvious that workers are getting left behind.”

While Gamel was able to help negotiate an end to the 2008 strike, he said the current situation could bring even more challenges ahead.

“This strike now, we have no idea how long it’s going to last,” he said.