General Motors workers will be losing their company-sponsored health care two days into a strike that has shut down more than 50 facilities across the country.
The company’s decision will force the United Auto Workers to dip into its strike fund in order to provide health coverage to the nearly 50,000 workers involved in the work stoppage. The union will pay for the cost of COBRA insurance during the lapse.
The UAW expected to pick up that tab at some point, but the timing may have been something of a surprise. The Detroit ABC affiliate, WXYZ-TV, obtained a letter from the UAW’s lead negotiator dated Monday seeking to confirm with GM that striking workers would have company coverage “through the end of the month.”
UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said in his letter that he wanted to “allay any concerns” of members.
GM confirmed the insurance drop in a statement to HuffPost, saying, “We understand strikes are difficult and disruptive to families.” The company noted that “some benefits shift” to the union during a strike.
Some labor leaders pounced on the move as a cruel bit of hardball by GM. Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, called it “unconscionable” to “yank health care coverage away from their dedicated employees, in the dead of night, with no warning.”
The move by GM ratchets up a battle that showed no imminent signs of ending Tuesday. The automaker and the union have been far apart on key issues, including starting wages and the use of temporary employees in GM plants. What’s already the longest auto strike in a decade is set to surpass the two-day GM strike of 2007 by Wednesday.
Workers have been girding for a long fight, arguing that they shouldn’t have to give anything up when GM has been enjoying strong profits. This year’s negotiations were expected to be the most difficult in a long time, as workers try to erase the concessions they made 12 years ago when GM was headed toward bankruptcy.
The union has built up a large war chest, with more than $700 million in its strike fund. It temporarily hiked dues in order to prepare for the possibility of a major walkout. In addition to the health coverage, workers will receive $250 a week in strike pay, raising the question of how long they can last before they feel squeezed financially.
Jessie Kelly, an apprentice mold maker at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, told HuffPost on Monday that she had saved up for the possibility of a long and painful strike.
“I could live out three months,” Kelly said. “I 100% feel this strike is necessary.”