First strike

Sep 26, 2007 at 12:00 am

I ditch my hand-me-down foreign car in an ironworkers’ lot, a block away from General Motors’ Powertrain Plant in Warren, and hike up to a team of UAW strikers. Homeless for the night, I figure I will spend it with them, if they’ll have me. My Tigers hat sits too high on my head, a size too small, and my voice recorder flashes an ominous red light when it’s on, but I’ve done all I can to get by. Still, the car is what does me in.

"First of all, what kind of car do you drive?"

This is well into the second night of the strike, and these union members have been outside for an hour, picking up the midnight shift in scant numbers — two or three dozen, all told. Their tent is already piled deep with a day’s worth of Dasani, cranberry juice, and Day-Glo mesh vests nobody wears.

"My mom’s Subaru."


"I didn’t buy it."

"I woulda lied about that one."

"Give you a hint on something, you don’t admit that. Not when you’re standing on a picket line, buddy. That’s not good."

"That’s, that’s rough."

"I’m honest," I say.

"Yeah, you got the truth out of him. You want to hear some more honesty? Keep buying that, you’ll be writing Chinese. Can you write vertical?"

This last is from Chuck, a man in his late 20s in a red Marines jacket, who lives to be quoted but wants his last name stricken. I don’t volunteer any knowledge of Chinese.

Within a minute of my arriving he has me pegged, not just as an urban Outbacker, but as a member of that most elusive political tribe: the unemployed, soon-to-be-uninsured, Republican aspirant. I haven’t quite said as much, but it sticks because I miss somebody’s cue to hoist a picket sign, which will dog me the rest of the night. A lot of things precede me here.

Still, somehow, by four in the morning, after word finally arrives that the strike has been called off, the workers and I are both on different terms.


Before I ever made it to the Powertrain Plant at Nine Mile and Mound roads, I had been warned, in so many words.

"You get down to these production plants, that’s a whole different ballgame," John Morgan, a metalshop worker, tells me near midnight outside the GM Technical Center, three miles up the road. He’s among a group of men who hollered and tried to wave me away when they saw the Outback pulling up to the curb, and for a time he kept up a mock wariness — he first gave me the name Steve Yzerman — but like all the older skilled tradesmen at his site, he’s quick to warm up.

"Their work environment’s not as good," he says of the Powertrain Plant. "It’s a long tedious day, doing the same thing over and over and over again. It’s not a bad job when you’re 20 years old. But, you know, you probably see more guys retiring with 30 years in the production plant, because a lot of guys just can’t do it anymore."

I let my guard down as Morgan and some of the other silverbacks at the Tech Center open up about their own lives, offering measured histories of immigration, activism and the legacies they’ve arranged, during which the union "we" in the conversation tends to feel both broader and more personal — the kind of earnest monologues Studs Terkel would have transcribed in full. But they also take the discussion back to the production plant and point me in that direction. I leave them after suffering a crack about a Kia — close enough.


"I got a question for you: What your parents do for a living?"

"My dad’s a workman’s comp lawyer, and my mom’s a second grade teacher."

"A second grade teacher. So she’s a union employee driving a Subaru?"

My mom is entirely too present tonight.

"But that’s not an auto worker," says one.

"Doesn’t make no difference," says another.


Picketing in front of a bus stop within shouting distance of the Powertrain tent, Joe Murphy offers me another angle on the guff I’m getting:

"I think the younger population in the plants — they’re union members’ sons and daughters and whatnot, and they’ve been educated in unionism as being a confrontational group."

Murphy relies on 30 years’ experience, mostly with the quality division of the plant, managing supply and relations. He’s standing next to one other man, a tall, laconic Robert Mitchell, who has him beat by one year at the plant. As Murphy talks, Mitchell seems to stand by everything he says, so he makes for a pleasant, abiding presence.

"And it’s not like that anymore," he continues. "We’ve done this before. We’ve done it locally. There was a brief strike where we were one of the selected plants. We understand that the company needs to make money for us to make money. You know, there’s some value in experience. Those guys at the Tech Center are all seniority people that have done this. This isn’t a confrontation."

Back at the tent, as the hour passes three o’clock, the young men are mostly passing the time with harmless off-color jokes — about female security guards, about the things Chuck’s one-armed cousin can do, about the strippers getting off work on Eight Mile Road. But every so often it turns back to the reporter, and whatever his problem is.

"You might get love with carrying a sign," Chuck tells me, "but if you got that kind of feeling with carrying a sign, you might as well go back to your car."

These warnings come out fast and sharp, before I have time to catch what brought them on in the first place. When health care comes up, he hits below the belt:

"You could pay your insurance if you get that big article, but you ain’t gonna get it the way you’re goin’ now."

There is a physicality to the delivery that irks me. When I punctuate an answer to a question with a nervous laugh, a friend of Chuck’s asks anyone if they heard that — all sarcastic like, he says. I start to notice things said under people’s breath, let alone what’s called down the block.


"Ey, Rob, this reporter down here needs a quote!"

"Hang in there!"

"I told him to hold a sign!"

"He said, ‘Hang in there ...’"

"Reporters have a way of distorting things to their viewpoint regardless of what we say."


Joe Murphy thinks it’s nervous excitement.

"They’ve got good-paying jobs now, they’re getting benefits, they’re raising children. You know, it makes people nervous. Whereas, he and I have seen this plant closed." He motions to Mitchell, who is watching the cars pass, honking their support.

"I went in the Navy for four years when it closed; other people went and worked at other plants and whatnot. We’ve seen this place padlocked. So this isn’t as bad as it may seem to them. It’s part of a process. I personally have every confidence in our leaders, that they have our best interests in mind, and I have every confidence in the GM people, that they have the best interest of the company and their employees in mind."

Somewhere in the three o’clock hour, we hear of a news conference coming up at four, and people start saying this will be the closer. Nobody gives much of an opinion about what it will be or what it may mean, but that doesn’t stop Joe from noting a change in the union mind-set.

"The thing that separates labor movements like this now, … this is a historic event, but it’s an educated workforce now, whereas the 67-day strike in the ’70s, you know — it used to be that you used to just blindly follow the union’s leaders. And they understand why they’re here now, not just because somebody said to be here."

Joe leaves before the announcement, not because he takes it upon himself, but because his shift is up. By four o’clock, people have drifted toward a transistor radio hanging inside the tent, but it gets too much interference, so somebody opens the back of a Grand Cherokee at the side of the road and people remain wherever they like, since everywhere is within earshot. WJR’s syndicated news-bytes boom over the early morning traffic.

… Congress moving to close a loophole that allows the hunting of wolves from aircraft in Alaska … California Democrat George Miller, at a news conference accompanied by a cute gray wolf, introduced legislation to stop it …

After some minutes of promos and Larry Craig updates, which prompt a round of flip-flopper jokes, a reporter not yet on the scene phones in with details at WJR News time four-oh-five.

… and also reporting that the UAW didn’t get specific job security guarantees …

"They didn’t?" Robert Mitchell asks someone next to him.


"That’s bullshit," says Mitchell. His red Pistons hat tilts down, over a gold cross pendant and tan jacket.

… and you heard the news there Jim, uh, obviously it’s great news for the company, great news for southeast Michigan, great news for the country …

Mitchell is the only one to say anything for a minute, until a dozen or so people ending their shifts remember their beds.

"Alright, I’ll see you when I see you."

The rest stay striking until the international union calls them off, no matter what they’ve heard. They walk around in an unbroken circle, signs still aloft, chatting about anything at hand, just as before the announcement.

"We used to play on the street as kids, you know," someone is saying. "That was all we did, man. I played more baseball than the pros did."

"Yeah? I was on teams. …"

A man I haven’t seen before, who deals with sourcing and manpower, waits on the call. Somebody else just onto his shift wants to hear that there’s no chance he’ll work today.

"’Cause I just came from the titty bar, and I ain’t in no shape."

Calls come in and go out for a few minutes, but not the call. Finally the OK comes through. Everyone’s first question is whether they can go home, and second is whether they work tomorrow. Some people lay down their placards in the tent and take off; others stick around and sign them for keepsakes. Someone asks me to sign one.


A white Detroit Free Press truck stops by 20 minutes before the conference breaks the airwaves.

"Hey there, union, want a real news?" Chuck says out of the blue, tossing a paper my way.

"I told him to carry a sign, he wouldn’t carry a sign," someone says.

I’ve never really been offered one, only indirectly like this, but I realize it might be my last chance.

"I’ll carry one."

"You wanna carry one for a little while? We got 20 minutes. Just carry a sign; when they beep, wave it. Show some love."

I pick it up with my notebook still in hand and face the oncoming traffic.

"You need another damn arm."

"He’s all right. He’s all right."

The guys who first ragged on me about my car take cellphone pictures of me holding a "UAW on Strike" placard, just to have something of their own on the reporter, and then disappear. Chuck is pumping his sign for everyone that passes. He’s a compact, fleet-looking guy in his red jacket, still animated this late into his shift. I do the same.

"Yeah, I ain’t really a jerk, man," he says, both of us looking at the road. "Just … means a lot, you know. This is my family’s life. You know, this is it, right here. I got other trades, but this is what I’m doing, right here."

The sky has been overcast all night, hiding the harvest moon, owing more to an evening shower than to the dormant building behind us. Cars pass us again and again — an old GMC pickup, a Lumina with a red stripe, a refitted Crown Vic, a newly tinted Charger and, occasionally, the odd foreign one. Most honk, and we hold them higher.

"You said your mom’s in the union, uh? She’s a teacher?"


"Maybe she’ll appreciate it," he says. "Tell her you held a sign."

Steve Cotner is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected]