The automaker said in a statement Thursday that it was “very concerned about the significant confusion” surrounding employee health insurance and that it had “chosen to work with our providers to keep all benefits fully in place” for workers on strike. The company assured there would be “no disruption” to medical, dental and prescription drug coverage.
The move amounts to an about-face by Detroit-based GM, which said last week that the United Auto Workers union would have to fund COBRA benefits until the work stoppage ended.
That earlier decision by GM ― which turned into national news ― created a wave of anxiety among employees who feared a lapse in coverage. Labor leaders and politicians hammered the company for what appeared to be a hardball bargaining tactic two days into the strike.
The UAW did not let up its criticism even after GM reversed course Thursday. The union’s lead negotiator on the GM contract, Vice President Terry Dittes, sent a letter to the company accusing it of “toying with the lives of hundreds of thousands of our UAW families.”
“There is no doubt that public sentiment sees these actions of GM as a shameful act!” Dittes wrote.
The company declined to say how long it intended to fund the health care benefits if the strike continues for weeks. The stoppage had entered its 11th day on Thursday, with no clear end in sight. It is possible if the strike persists the company could decide again to force the union to pay for benefits out of its strike fund.
Dittes said Wednesday that the UAW was waiting on a response from GM on the union’s latest proposals and that “the back and forth will continue” until everything is resolved. The union and the company had been far apart on key issues, including the wage scale for newer hires, the company’s use of temporary workers, and the share of health care costs borne by employees.
The strike involves nearly 50,000 workers at more than 50 GM facilities around the country.
The UAW is also negotiating new contracts this year with Ford and Fiat Chrysler, the other members of the Big Three. The union chose to bargain first with GM, extending its previous contracts with the other two automakers. UAW leadership called for a strike at GM starting Sept. 16 after workers’ contract there expired.
As HuffPost reported in July, the negotiations for a new four-year contract were expected to be the most difficult in more than a decade. Workers are expecting to make significant gains after sacrificing to prop up the company around the time of the financial crisis. GM, meanwhile, wants to keep labor costs down as auto sales slow.
As one GM worker previously told HuffPost, “It’s time for them to give back.”