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GM laid off thousands of Kansas City workers during the UAW strike, but they aren't sitting still

A group of people stands facing forward while they listen to a speaker at a rally. A man holds a sign in the air that reads "Solidarity!"
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
More than 100 people came out to UAW Local 31's solidarity rally to show support for those striking and the Kansas City, Kansas, workers who were laid off.

About 100 people gathered outside of the UAW Local 31 union hall to support striking UAW workers across the nation and their own members, who were laid off due to supply chain issues caused by the strike. Despite the layoffs, workers say they’re not deterred and remain ready to strike.

On a bright, sunny afternoon, more than 100 people, including area politicians, gathered on Wednesday outside of the United Auto Workers Local 31 union hall in Kansas City, Kansas, for a rally in solidarity with UAW strikes across the nation.

General Motors temporarily idled the Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kansas, last week and does not plan to reinstate the 2,000 laid-off employees until after the United Auto Workers strike. The company said the strike at the Wentzville, Missouri, plant, just outside of St. Louis, stalled the stamping work necessary for operations at the Fairfax plant to continue.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly; Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Tyrone Garner; Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas; Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree; and House representatives from Kansas and Missouri spoke at the rally alongside UAW Local 31 members.

Former Local 31 President Clarence Brown said the event, like the UAW strikes, was about standing in solidarity to help all working families.

“I look out here into this crowd and you know what I see? I see history unfolding right before our eyes,” Brown said. “I see members who are ready to do what needs to be done so that we can move forward. We stand together because it doesn’t matter where you came from, what you’re doing. We stand for the things that are right.”

A man holds a sign by his leg that reads "UAW on strike" many stand around him
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
UAW has been on strike since Sept. 15 and has so far called more than 40 plants to strike. UAW Local 31 is not striking yet, but members say they're prepared to.

Representatives for General Motors did not respond to a request for comment.

“We have said repeatedly that nobody wins in a strike, and that effects go well beyond our employees on the plant floor and negatively impact our customers, suppliers and the communities where we do business,” General Motors said in a statement following the layoffs. “What happened to our Fairfax team members is a clear and immediate demonstration of that fact.”

UAW Local 31 workers aren’t one of the more than 40 plants currently striking but say they are prepared to walk off whenever UAW President Shawn Fain calls on them. Nikita Chappell, a third-generation GM worker and UAW member, said she remains dedicated to the UAW demands despite the layoffs because she wants union members to recover pay and benefits they gave up to keep the auto companies afloat during the 2008 recession.

“When you look at inflation everything goes up except for our pay,” Chappell said. “So it makes it harder when everything is up and we’re still stuck in the same pay we were, say, 15 years ago.”

The company is not giving workers supplemental unemployment because the layoffs are due to the strike. But UAW leadership said they will be provided with $500 a week from the union’s strike fund. In the meantime, members have access to Local 31’s food and necessities pantry, which rally attendees brought donations for.

A man stands facing forward. The back of his shirt reads "UAW on strike for: fair wages, affordable quality health care, our share of profits, job security, a defined path to permanent seniority for temps."
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
UAW's contract demands include eliminating tiered pay structures, a nearly 40% wage increase, restoring cost of living adjustments, re-establishing medical benefits and pensions for all workers, the right to strike over plant closures, and more paid time off.

In response to the layoffs, Fain said the union will last longer than the auto companies and will not let laid-off workers go without an income.

“Let’s be clear: if the Big Three decide to lay people off who aren’t on strike, that’s them trying to put the squeeze on our members to settle for less,” Fain said in a statement. “With their record profits, they don’t have to lay off a single employee. In fact, they could double every autoworker’s pay, not raise car prices, and still rake in billions of dollars.”

UAW members want wage increases of about 40%, reinstating cost of living adjustments, ending tiered wage and benefits structures, re-establishing medical benefits and pensions for all members, and job protection in the switch to electric vehicles.

Dontay Wilson, president of UAW Local 31, has been with the union for about 16 years. He said the layoffs are harming the employees, some of whom are living paycheck to paycheck. Wednesday’s rally was meant to give hope to his own members as much as those striking across the country.

“We are your patrons at your restaurant,” Wilson said. “We are at your convenience store. We are the community. Anything that affects one of us affects all of us. That's the main goal of getting everybody together and saying, ‘We're here, we're fighting.’ Any benefits package that you receive on your job is mainly because of the energy and the fight from unions, in particular the UAW. So this is not our fight. This is everyone’s fight.”

It’s been about two weeks since the strike started, and the UAW has expanded its strikes to 38 additional parts distribution centers for GM and Stellantis after the union said the companies did not make progress on a new contract.

Ford, however, did make some progress according to the UAW — the company reinstated a cost of living adjustment and granted the right to strike over plant closures — so additional Ford locations were not struck.

A woman in a red shirt holds a sign that reads "Mary Barra's 28,979,570 greed"
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Terri Hall (L) is a UAW Local 249 member and works at the Ford plant in Claycomo, Missouri. She came to UAW Local 31's rally to show solidarity with the nationwide strikes.

Ronrico Monroe, who’s been with UAW Local 31 since 2005, hopes the rally dispels misconceptions he thinks people have about the strike. He said the union is fighting for “equal pay for equal work” and he’s not going to give up until they have it.

“The benefits are important, you need that work-life balance,” Monroe said. “It’s not just the UAW that we’re fighting for. This is something that affects everybody — the entire working class. I know they’re trying to put it out as if we’re being greedy or we are overasking, but we’re not really asking for anything except for what we gave up and what we deserve.”

Jeffery Thompson, who joined Monroe at the rally and has been with UAW Local 31 since 2012, sees this fight as a matter of justice. GM’s CEO Mary Barra made nearly $29 million last year — a point highly stressed at the rally. Thompson believes that given Barra’s pay, 362 times the average GM worker’s salary, it is past time for the union to fight for wage increases.

“The Big Three have made record profits, and while they were making record profits we have been at a standstill. And so now it’s time to pony up,” Thompson said.

As the rally continued and Local 31 provided people plates of food, Chappell thought about her three daughters, all of whom play sports, what it takes to support them and what it takes for her coworkers to put food on the table. She said the layoffs, which could last for weeks, aren’t deterring her from the UAW cause.

“It’s a long process,” Chappell said. “Right now it’s pretty difficult. But knowing what we want and what we’re fighting for, it makes it all worth it. I am ready to stand for as long as we need to to get what we deserve.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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