It’s been about a month since the United Auto Workers went on strike against General Motors. For small communities that rely on GM plants, the financial strain is felt from striking union members to local diners and shops. While many businesses are seeing losses, some are finding ways to support workers through the strike.
Strike Leaves Union Members In Tough Financial Situations
Music blares from the speakers as Local 2209 union members near Fort Wayne meet for the annual picnic. People grab a bite to eat at the union hall. Outside children run around playing games.
UAW member Theresa Bradin takes advantage of the late September sunny weather to meet with friends and co-workers. But she says the strike casts a cloud over the celebration. Two miles down the road, fellow union members are about to go into the second week of the strike against GM.
“It seems that everybody has so much on their minds right now. I know inside they still have their positions where you have to sign in to go to the strike lines,” says Bradin. “Everybody, it’s our talk right now. We’re on strike. We’re on strike.”
But Bradin’s not on strike. She was temporarily laid off from GM supplier Avancez. The company sits across the road from the now idled Fort Wayne General Motors Assembly plant and suspended its own operations shortly after the strike started.
Bradin’s co-worker and friend Kristi Hunnicutt says with no job or steady paycheck, she’s had to file for unemployment and cut spending.
“Just simple things like going out to eat and things like that as well, no we better not do things like that ‘cause we don’t know when we’re getting our unemployment check,” says Hunnicutt. “So just scrimping and saving, but I’m pretty much used to doing that from previous layoffs, but I just didn’t want to go and have to do it again.”
Small Communities Face Big Impacts With Strike
Kokomo Local 292 shop chairman Greg Wohlford says when union members have less to spend, local business suffers as well.
“You know it affects the beauticians, the restaurants, the hotels, you know all that kind of stuff that people don’t realize,” says Wohlford. “It’s like throwing a rock in the pond and there’s the ripple effect and that’s what happens.”
Unlike Detroit, Indiana’s four GM facilities are all located in smaller communities – Bedford, Marion, Kokomo and Roanoke. University of Michigan business professor Erik Gordon follows the auto industry and says the economic effects of the strike will be felt quicker in those areas.
“So if you are in a small town and you are trying to sell refrigerators, if you’re trying to sell houses, if you’re trying to sell dinners because you’re a restaurant,” says Gordon. “All of a sudden, 10 or 20 percent of the buying power is taken off the board in a small town, it can really hurt the small local retailers and merchants in a very big way.”
Just a few miles from the Fort Wayne Assembly plant in Roanoke, McClure’s Market and Bulk Foods owner Ashley Black fills produce into buckets for her customers to pick up. She says early on in the strike business slowed down.
“A lot of my weekly customers have had to cut back a little bit,” says Black. “I do fresh boxes, where they get their bucket and they get $40 worth of produce for $20 and I’ve had some come to me and say, ‘Can’t afford it this week.’”
Communities Supporting Union Workers On Strike
Black says she and other local businesses wanted to help those affected by the strike. First she reduced the produce bucket prices down to ten dollars for her customers unable to pay the full twenty. Then she went one step further.
“But then that kind of led to I need to do something else for everybody else,” says Black. “So I’m giving 25 percent off to any 2209 member and anybody else who is secondarily affected through the strike.”
Other businesses and organizations in many areas are also helping out. Local United Way groups, restaurants and the Kokomo Fire Department are offering support to those affected by the strike.
“If you ask anybody, Howard County it’s a union community, a large percentage of our workers are unionized here which is not normally what you will see,” says Cheryl Graham, the United Way of Howard County AFL-CIO director located in Kokomo. “People understand that the unions are setting the bar for the rest of the people here and that a lot of the business know that if our union people aren’t making a union wage, that these businesses won’t be able to exist. So we understand that inner connectivity and appreciate it for what it is and understand these people are out there in the best interest of all of us really.”
Allen County United Way union liaison Mike Bynum says he’s held classes for union members and others interested about services available to them if things were to take a turn for the worse.
“A lot of what I’ve done, as well as the union leadership, has been able to prepare the membership in what is possible, what could happen, and that is where being proactive in any situation, regardless of which side of the line you are on is important,” says Bynum.
So far Bynum says he hasn’t received many inquiries for help from union workers impacted by the strike so far, but is ready for if and when the calls start pouring in.
‘We’re in this together’
On the picket lines, union members say they’ll keep striking as long as necessary, even with the financial strain.
While the entire community near the Fort Wayne plant is feeling the pains of the strike, Theresa Bradin and Ashley Black say when it comes to the small town of Roanoke and neighboring areas, they’ll help one another as much as they can.
“We just want everybody to know that we’re in this together and that we do need to lean on each other,” says Bradin.
“I’m seeing more people reach out and support the UAW members than I’ve ever seen,” says Black. “But anytime anybody is in need in this community, they always take care of it.”