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On the picket lines, autoworkers are willing to strike for as long as it takes

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

OK. We're going to hear more about that United Auto Workers strike, which is expanding. The union says it's making good progress negotiating with Ford, but that's not been the case with GM and Stellantis. So 38 distribution centers for those car companies are now on strike. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom spoke with GM workers joining the strike in Mississippi.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: The UAW strategy to start the strike with just three large plants left thousands of workers on the strike sidelines.

SHELLY THOMAS: We hated it.

BISAHA: Shelly Thomas is a union chairperson at the GM distribution center in Brandon, Miss. Friday, she finally got the call to join the strike, so now she's picketing outside her plant with a half-dozen workers as passing cars honk in support.

THOMAS: When we found out that we was going to go, we became excited because we feel like it's part of our fight, too.

BISAHA: That fight's for both job security and better pay, especially to catch up with inflation. Thomas says she's doing pretty well at $32 an hour, but she says new workers make half that.

THOMAS: Some people can't even afford a car to come here, OK? They can - we can't afford to get the cars that we make.

BISAHA: Now, this plant only has about 100 workers, but Thomas says shutting it down will still be a nightmare for GM. This is where dealerships repairing customers' cars get their parts from.

THOMAS: So it's not coming in today. It might not come in next week. It might not come in week after next. It may come in in January, whenever we all strike.

BISAHA: You're willing to go till January?

THOMAS: I'm willing to go till next January.

BISAHA: Omar Patterson also works at the plant, and he's not as enthusiastic about a long strike.

OMAR PATTERSON: Listen. The strike is good for no one, you know, on both sides. You know, we're going to lose money. They're going to lose money. Who is it good for?

BISAHA: He blames GM management, though, not the union for the strike. Now, the thing about expanding the strike is that it's also no longer contained to the union strongholds in the north. And here in Mississippi, the honks of support are the exception, like when a man at a Waffle House went off on Patterson for wearing a UAW shirt.

PATTERSON: The UAW and the Teamsters and all of that, they're bad for the - they're bad. They're bad. They're bad. And I'm like, here we go. A lot of people in the South do not like unions.

BISAHA: Foreign automakers actually have several plants in the South specifically because there are few unions. The Big Three automakers say in order to compete with that, they can't raise wages as much as the UAW wants. But Patterson has seen his paycheck eaten up by inflation and has faith the current UAW president, Shawn Fain, will deliver the pay Patterson says he's worth.

PATTERSON: Some people can make it off of pennies because that's all they've ever had. I can't. I can't. I can't. I will not.

BISAHA: So even though he says he doesn't like the strike, he'll stick with the fight for a fair deal. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Brandon, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Stephan Bisaha
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