A day on the picket line with Martinsburg's GM strikers

MARTINSBURG — Midnight on the General Motors picket line is a lively affair.

There is pizza, a gift from unionized casino workers in Baltimore, piled up on a table. There are glow-in-the-dark sticks, the kind revelers bring to concerts, bobbing up and down on the head and arms of a striking worker as she shakes a sign at passersby.

There is the neon light shining down from Lust Gentlemen’s Club just up the block. “WE SUPPORT UAW STRIKE,” the club’s sign blasts.

And then there is Dudley Webber, 60, an employee of some 40 years at the GM outpost here, which ships and distributes parts. Six hours into his picketing shift, he is hollering at every passing car or truck that honks.

“Woooohooooo!” he shouts at one. “Badass!” the driver yells back.

Three weeks into one of the longest and largest private employer strikes in 50 years — some 50,000 workers have stopped working — picket lines like this are the front lines of a dispute that has seen production halted at 55 General Motors factories and parts centers.

Workers — who only receive $250 a week from the union during the strike and not their regular paychecks — say they want to regain ground lost in contract negotiations during the recession, now that the company is back to near-record profitability. GM, which analysts estimate could be losing as much as $100 million a day, says it needs to keep pace with foreign automakers in the United States, which are not unionized and pay workers less.

But the action is unfolding amid a broader conversation about inequality and the well-being of everyday Americans. Workers say they have drawn inspiration from recent battles — such as the 2018 teacher strike in this state — that have given organized labor a newfound sense of momentum. Worker strikes are proliferating to levels not seen for 30 years. A successful effort here could help beget others.

There are early signs that the strike may begin to drag the economy in places like Michigan. Picket lines there and in other swing states have served as a revolving door for Democratic presidential candidates to show support in front of television cameras.

But a strike is not a monolith. It is a quilt stitched together from the experiences of tens of thousands of workers, including the 88 at this distribution center in West Virginia’s panhandle. And to understand it, go to the picket line — for all four round-the-clock shifts of it.

1:20 a.m. — Route 9 picket line

Traffic on this thoroughfare, busy during the day, has slowed to a trickle. The cicadas hum on this Wednesday night in October — the air so warm that anything more than a T-shirt feels heavy.

And the 6 p.m. to midnight crew has mostly taken off, leaving the graveyard rotation, who are all under 30. Except for Gerry Van der Wijst, 61, who has been here since 3 p.m. He is banking some hours so that he can take off on a trip with his wife, missing a shift this weekend.

“Told the wife three weeks ago, ‘Aw, we’re not going to be on strike that weekend, don’t worry,’” he said.

Van der Wijst used to own a furniture store, but it closed in 2016 after business dried up. He never thought too kindly about unions as a private business owner. Now he finds himself supporting them.

“I feel like if I see people picketing in the future, I’m going to stop,” he said. “It means more to me now.”

2:30 a.m. — Route 9

Now it is just the three younger employees, Corbin Clark, 28, and brother Elisha, 23, and Logan Byers, 27, standing on the road.

The picket line is staffed in four six-hour shifts to cover the clock. Striking workers don red shirts during the day but the dress code loosens overnight. Corbin Clark is in track pants.

The three men began playing a game where they’d guess the color of the next car on the road. It was going to be a long night.

“Watch out for them coyotes!” a driver shouted out her window as she passed, sending the three into a fit of laughter.

The three, who all came in as temporary employees before getting hired full on, said the company’s increasing reliance on temporary workers — 7 percent of its workforce now — was a sticking point for them. Elisha Clark had set an informal record at the facility after temping for more than two years before being hired, they said.

These contract workers make significantly less wages than the other employees, but do the same work on a similar schedule. They get three unpaid days off a year and have little job security.

“This is our future,” said Corbin Clark, who worked at a grocery store making less wages before GM. “If we’re going to be here for a while, we gotta make sure our contracts are good.”

3:20 a.m. — Main entrance to GM facility

GM employed more than 1,000 workers in Martinsburg from the plant’s founding in the 1960s to the 1990s. But the company has shed jobs over the past 20 years — consolidating certain facilities, such as the distribution center here, with its operations in Michigan, and outsourcing other jobs to factories in places like Mexico and China.

Still, the 88 workers left here have set up three picket lines, two of which are staffed around the clock, to show their resolve.

Randy Brown, 56, Sam Beitler, 61, Carol Barnes, and Vanessa Banks, 55, stand at the second picket location about a mile away, a gravel median near the GM plant’s entrance that smells vaguely of roadkill and gets even less traffic at night. They had some 90 years of work at the company between them.

Brown was cooking sausages and peppers on a makeshift wood-burning stove he had fashioned out of a waist-high steel can.

Beitler, with more than 30 years at the company, said GM has always been one of the best jobs in the area.

But the strike had been a new challenge. Just days after it began, GM announced it would cut off health benefits for those striking, creating confusion for workers. Beitler’s wife is in the middle of treatment for brain cancer and was waiting for an appointment at a hospital in Baltimore. But under public pressure, GM quickly shifted course and said health coverage would continue.

The workers said they had seen news of officials and presidential candidates visiting picket lines in Kansas City, Detroit, and Ohio but noted that none of them had come to Martinsburg, population 17,000. Would Bernie Sanders pay them a visit, one wondered?

They bit into the sausages on the quiet road, staring into the darkness.

11:35 a.m. — Route 9

A group of four workers stood in the shade of a canopy at the Route 9 picket location. It was 92 degrees. And it was only getting hotter.

The men were fervent union supporters. But they didn’t want to be confused for socialists.

Earl Dick, 60, an electrician at the company, said reporters from the World Socialist website, which has been writing about the strikes, had been canvassing the picket lines to recruit and take pictures, he claimed.

“They were taking the strike as an opportunity to infiltrate,” Dick said, noting he had his Trump hat in the car.

A report on the group’s website seems to indicate another purpose — covering the strike to air the workers’ plight.

Tim Armstrong, 51, said that he felt like both Democrats and most Republicans didn’t care about unions beyond the money they bring in contributions. He was 22 years into what he hoped would be a 30-year career at GM.

“The one thing I do see that somebody is trying to make a difference, is Trump trying to keep the jobs in America,” he said. “To me, that’s huge.”

5:45 p.m. — Truck entrance to GM facility

A brief afternoon rush on the road had dissipated, leaving Carl Franklin, 55, Jim Ennis, 65, Banks, and Dick in lawn chairs as the sun sunk into the sky. Dick was wearing the red Trump hat he had been talking about earlier.

They began to talk about the concessions the union had made amid economic head winds in 2007 and again in 2009 while the company was going through bankruptcy. The compromises created a two-tiered wage system. New hires have to spend eight years working their way up to the top wage, which is about $30 an hour.

Those were tougher times. The company has been making near record profits in recent years; it made $8.1 billion after taxes last year. And workers, who have received profit-sharing checks of about $8,000-$10,000 the last nine years, hope to get what they say would be a fairer piece of that pie.

“There is no team work here, it’s us trying to appease them,” said Franklin, a retired police officer who’s been at GM for 19 years.

Franklin brought up the federal bailouts given to companies, including General Motors, after the financial crisis in 2008. He still remembered when AIG executives, whose company was rescued by taxpayers, turned around and flew to luxury retreats. He cited the $22 million compensation given to CEO Mary Barra in 2018 — 280 times what the median GM worker makes, based on some estimates.

“What kind of job do you do as the CEO, to have private vehicles, multimillion dollar income and then you’re going to sit there and question us because we want extra something on our health care?” he said.

“Or just to maintain the health care we have,” Banks said.

9:10 p.m. — Main entrance

Scott Henry, 54, Lacey Hockman, 36, and Collin Hopkins, 24, sat in the darkness, talking about subsisting without a regular paycheck from GM. But other than that, workers have to rely on money they’ve been told to save up for months.

“We kind of prepared,” Hockman said. “Not exactly prepared for it to be this long.”

GM, one of the country’s biggest manufacturers, has a long history of portentous fights with the UAW. Large-scale strikes at GM and Detroit’s other big automakers in the 1930s and ’40s helped cement the labor movement’s might in a growing economy. But its been nearly 50 years since the last strike at the company to go this long, a 1970 shutdown that lasted 67 days.

“I would have bet money that we wouldn’t have been out this long,” Henry, an employee of 35 years said.

The economic effects of an extended strike have already begun to reverberate. GM plants in Canada and Mexico have laid off some 9,000 workers amid the U.S. shutdown. And some suppliers the company buys parts from have also begun downsizing. Striking workers say they are cutting their expenses, putting pressure on restaurants and other local businesses that rely on their spending. The longer this lasts, the more severe the impact will be.

Hockman said she had made her car payments in advance. But, she said, you’re “certainly not going out and doing a lot of extras.”

Most of the workers said, though, that they were prepared for the strike to continue. They felt the cause was worth it and they were slowly gaining ground. The health insurance turnaround had been a modest victory. Were others on the horizon?

It was hard to say when the occasional honk from a passing car on this lonely West Virginia road was the only immediate sign the message is resonating.

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