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Auto Worker Jessie Kelly talks about the oppression of being a temp worker, how it keeps workers impoverished & works to diminish unions.

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

The United Auto Workers strike against General Motors is now entering its fifth day. One of the key issues is the use of temporary workers, an issue that’s becomes central not only to the strike, but one that’s changing the landscape of work and impoverishing the working class in our country. Temps have no job security. They can be fired at will. They pit those men and women against union workers. And all this on top of the two-tiered system, which gives new full-time workers less pay and benefits than workers hired before 2007. GM says they cannot be competitive if they don’t pay temp workers less with no benefits. Yet, they boast of a $35 billion profit over the last three years.

We’re joined today by Jessie Kelly, who’s one of the striking workers, who’s an apprentice mold-maker at the GM Warren Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. She’s a member of UAW-Local 160. She joined that nine years ago, and is now their Communications Director as well, and she began her work at GM as a temp worker. Welcome. It is good to have you with us, Jessie.

JESSIE KELLY: Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: This is something that I really think even though I’ve seen a bunch of articles about it, it has kind of flown under the radar to understand the importance of why the issue of temporary workers is so key to this strike. I think it’s important that you talk about it as well because that’s how you started your life there, right?

JESSIE KELLY: Absolutely. So about seven years ago, when we started taking concessions after the buyout in Detroit for the auto makers, we went into a two-tier system, at which point they started making more fancier language than the last set of contract negotiations called “temporary employees.” The thing about it is there’s nothing temporary about these employees at all. They work 40, often, sometimes more hours per week. They’re on mandatory overtime. They’re working 4-5 years long. The company is not giving them a pathway to employment. They’re treating them like second-class citizens.

They’re pitting the temporary employees against the permanent employees. They aren’t able to get any vacation time. You’re only offered three days off throughout the whole entire year that’s unpaid. No bereavement, no jury duty, nothing like profit sharing, no wage increases. And you’re in this environment where we have fought, as UAW, very long and very hard, and we’ve went through sit-down strikes, and we’ve went through many strikes to be able to get these things as the middle class, and now it’s eroding through the temporary classification.

MARC STEINER: So in terms of this issue, I mean, how do you think that it’s going to play out? I asked you before we went on camera together if you thought the strike was going to last past the weekend. I’d like to hear an answer to that, but also the context of this particular issue and how it plays into all of that.

JESSIE KELLY: I, unfortunately, think the strike will last beyond the weekend. They do say that there is progression, but the progression is low. That has a lot to do with the fact that the offer that General Motors made us that would be looked at as even a jumping point off, didn’t come until hours before the negotiation ended. The membership right now, we’re not willing to take anything less. We’re not willing to take any more concessions in record-breaking profit years. So if there isn’t language in this next set of contract negotiations that involve the temporary employees that we work next to every single day, it’s just not going to fly with the membership.

MARC STEINER: I’m curious, in terms of this thing, it seems in some ways from some people I’ve talked to over the last week, and a friend of mine who is a retired UAW guy who’s now living off in Utah, but anyway, he was talking about that in some ways this strike is being pushed actually from the bottom-up, almost more than the top-down. We can talk a bit about that, especially since so many people –  not so many, a number of people at the top are now under investigation for corruption. How does all that play together in this strike?

JESSIE KELLY: I think, as a society, we’re realizing the core principles of a union again. And one of the core principles that we were built off of is that your membership is your overriding authority. The membership has always been the overriding authority inside of the UAW. And that’s what makes it so great. You do have the ability to appeal any decision that’s made by any leadership in the UAW because we have the last say as a membership. Same thing with tentative agreements and contracts. At the end of the day, we have the ability to turn down or to accept any tentative agreement that’s coming.

And I know what you’re talking about as far as the news, a couple of people put us in a bad light, but this isn’t about them. This is about us and the 49,000 families that are impacted by this next tentative agreement, and even beyond that, the middle class because the UAW has made the standard of living in the middle class for America.

MARC STEINER: Well, that’s one of the things we’ve talked about here before. People are getting clearer that part of the reason the middle class was built in this country is unions.


MARC STEINER: And what unions fought for to make sure people had wages to be able to live a good life in this country. I mean, when they went on strike in 2007, UAW had 74,000 members and now you’re down to 35. Is that what it is? 34,000 members?

JESSIE KELLY: Yes, unfortunately.

MARC STEINER: Right? And so, how does this whole question of temporary workers play into that? I remember one of the issues in that strike in 2007 was the union kind of acquiesced and said yes to a two-tiered system in terms of how you were going to pay workers, so talk about that. What’s the nitty gritty there?

JESSIE KELLY: So we were still coming out of a bankruptcy at that point. We wanted to be profitable, and we wanted the companies that we worked for to feel stable. And we understood where they were coming from when they said we needed to work together as a team in 2007. The only problem with this is that we took concessions like two tiers and we added language like temporary employees, in hopes that they would do the right thing at the end of the day, and that they would know that it was our families that suffered during this time in order to give them the profits that they’ve made throughout the last three years.

Now they’re leaving us behind. Now they’re expecting more concessions. They’re expecting to hurt families more and abolish the middle class. And all we’re asking for is the fact that General Motors and the UAW grew this middle class in America together, so don’t bail out on us now. Don’t leave us in the dust for your own personal gains at this point. Just bring us along with you. Remember where you came from.

MARC STEINER: They do remember where they came from and they want to stay there and not let you get there. So I mean, Jacobin reported in one of their articles recently about the strike that GM was making $35 billion in profits over the last three years, but they paid no federal income taxes last year and gifted the CEO, Mary Barra, is that her name?


MARC STEINER: $22 million? And so, I mean, this is a huge issue. How do you get to that? What can you do to kind of make sure that workers take part of that money when they make this argument, “Well, we can’t do this because you have to have temp workers because temp workers are the only way we can survive and make a profit?”

JESSIE KELLY: I mean, for her to say that we need to be competitive against other companies, it’s just not accurate. Her own profits and her own salary every single year is not competitive against our other companies either. I mean, we’re talking about American-built companies here. So to say that we’re going to pit each other against each other to other corporations that are in a race to the bottom, is just not the right answer at all. When you’re a millionaire, you don’t need to choose what bill to pay. So when we’re in a billionaire company, we don’t need to choose between concessions and temporary employees. We are in a situation where we can have it all, and we can treat the people better than the profits. And it can be about the people and not the profits, and still be profitable at the end of the day. $20 million a year is way more than anything that we’re asking for at all. We’re just asking for a solid middle-class living for our families to be able to exist here in America.

MARC STEINER: So GM is now kind of filling its factories with low-paid temps and contractors. And apparently, also according to this Jacobin piece I was reading, they have a subsidiary called GM Subsystems where a lot of this work goes on.


MARC STEINER: And so, I mean, how much of your strike is about this and what do you expect?

JESSIE KELLY: Well, we do have a subsystem now. It’s the GM, LLC. We’ve also farmed out a lot of work that used to be owned by GM union employees to the Aramark, who’s also out on strike, and other third-party companies like them. This is what I mean about just the plethora of concessions that they’re asking us to take, is those jobs are only paying $15 an hour that traditionally used to pay over $20-$25 an hour. And we’re doing these things, and we are at the point now where a strike was inevitable because we have to fight back. At this point, we know that we’ll never satisfy the corporate greed that the company is showing, and so at what point do you say, “Enough is enough?” We have to go out and we have to come together because we deserve a life too.

MARC STEINER: So are those temp workers on the lines with you?

JESSIE KELLY: They are on the lines with us, yes, at many plants. Unfortunately, at my particular site, about a year ago, they did let go of all of our temporary employees after five years.

MARC STEINER: So very quickly before we have to end this, there’s two quick questions here. One, I’m just curious to share with our listeners and our viewers, what life was like for you as a temp worker.

JESSIE KELLY: It was honestly probably the most devastating position I’ve ever been in in life. I’m a single mom. My son was only four at the time. I relied heavily on my family around me to help me support him because I couldn’t take days off. My aunt and grandma both passed away during my time as a temporary employment. There was no bereavement days. They said that they were doing me a favor by giving me one extra day out of that year in order to go to a funeral for my grandma. And then when my aunt passed shortly after, they said, “We already helped you out.”

It was disgusting. People were so terrified. I sat next to a man on the line with me who was having a baby. His wife was in the hospital having a baby, and he left her in the hospital bed during labor to come to work because he was too afraid to lose his job.


JESSIE KELLY: Yeah. I’ve been with other women that were pregnant while being a temporary employee. They would give birth and two weeks after they would say, “You need to come back to work or they’re going to cut off your insurance.” And so, two weeks after birth, they’re coming back into this workplace to make them profits, and they’ve never been loyal back to them.

MARC STEINER: So the last part here is just, what is your bottom line? And what’s the bottom line for most of the men and women you work with on the line now on strike? What’s the bottom line? What are they going to say yes to and say no to?

JESSIE KELLY: Our bottom line is really just making sure that they understand that we’re people. We deserve better conditions. We will not accept temporary employment at all. And we need to be able to have a pathway for those people, a pathway that makes sense for every single person. They cannot touch our health insurance. Our health insurance is all that we have right now because we are working in dangerous positions, in dangerous situations every single day to make them profitable. So if anything comes down and it doesn’t include a pathway for permanent employment for the temporary employees, and it doesn’t include any concessions to our health insurance, there’s just no way that we’re going to be able to ratify a tentative agreement.

MARC STEINER: So Jessie, the one last thought here is you— as a young, rising union activist and union member— what’s the future here? When you see a union that went from 74,000 to 35,000 members, and the diminishment in power of unions in this country, but the need for unions to turn things around. Whether people who are for Bernie Sanders or not, he came out with an interesting labor platform that I think was the first time I’d seen a presidential candidate doing that, and that’s good for—We need to have that discussion. So where do you see this going? How does UAW regain its power? How do you organize the workers that are not organized in this huge industry in this country, and globally?

JESSIE KELLY: We just have to be heard. And I think for the first time in a long time, we are. My generation wasn’t very informed about unions. I feel a little bit differently about that. I grew up in a union household. I stood on my first strike line when I was five years old, helping out everybody. So I just feel like, to me, it’s second nature. To a lot of people in my generation, unfortunately, it hasn’t been. So when we do have political activists like Bernie Sanders bringing it to the forefront and educating future generations, that’s nothing but growth. That’s how we become powerful again. That’s how we make this difference inside of America, and how we raise middle-class living. And I am so, so glad that it is becoming a topic. Even with this strike, as unfortunate as a strike is, and how difficult it is to live on $250 a week, and these families are going to be suffering, it’s bringing our fight into the forefront. It’s letting us be heard. And that’s going to do nothing but impact us positively.

And these other children and these other next generations, they’re going to see this and they’re going to know that all we need is an opportunity. If they can get those same opportunities, they can make a good lifetime too, so we’re here for them. I think that we’re finally to a point in society where we’re understanding that although we’re taking the sacrifice right now, and we’re taking the monetary loss, we’re fighting for their rights too, and we’re fighting for their future and their children’s future.

MARC STEINER: Jessie Kelly, thank you so much. Just let you know, we stand on that line with you. We appreciate you work. 29-year-olds like you are the future, and I appreciate what you’re doing and your time with us today.

JESSIE KELLY: Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here at The Real News Network. We’ll be covering this strike for as long as it takes. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.