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How Does the Everyday Factory Worker Get Through a Strike Financially?

Not easily when their weekly union benefit check is below the national poverty line

The General Motors strike has been going on for 36 days. Which means GM auto workers have been without a paycheck for over a month. In the interim, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) are given a weekly $250 benefit check from the union. Though, if it wasn’t already obvious, $250 a week isn’t enough money to survive. “UAW strike pay is below the national poverty line, below the Michigan minimum wage [$9.45] and even below what the average retiree gets in Social Security,” reports USA Today. “Even many part-time workers see bigger paychecks than that.” 

Still, while $250 is hardly a livable wage, Art Wheaton, director of the Workers Institute at Cornell University, says that since there are 47,000 UAW union members, $250 a week can quickly add up. “That’s nearly $12 million a week,” he explains. 

So where does that money come from?

“Right from union dues,” he says. “It’s usually set aside as a percentage of your dues. It doesn’t cover your car payment. It doesn’t cover your rent. It doesn’t cover your insurance. It doesn’t cover anything but having some source of food for your family.”

As for how much of the UAW members paycheck goes toward union dues, Wheaton says it’s approximately two hours of their monthly salary. “The UAW voted to increase that to two and a half hours instead of two in preparation,” he explains. “They did that in June at their national convention. Then, when General Motors made the decision to close, or unallocate, four different plants in November, the UAW told everybody to start saving their money.”

Along those lines, per an ABC News report, although the $250 weekly strike benefit was scheduled to be increased to $275 a week on January 1st, just last week, union leaders moved to increase it immediately. “When they increased the strike pay up to $275, that’s when they also lifted the restriction that you couldn’t go out and get another job,” says Wheaton. “That was saying, ‘Okay, if you need to go get some hours driving a Lyft or an Uber or some other type of part-time work, you can do that and not threaten your strike pay.’” Before that, Wheaton says that in order for a union member to receive their weekly benefit check, they were required to report to the picket lines.

Either way, it’s not much to survive on. So how do union members stay afloat while fighting for better wages and benefits?

Just barely, and with considerable help from others. “In this particular case, you’ve had many, if not all, of the people in the local community driving up in their trucks, giving them food, dropping off lumber for the fires to keep burning, to keep them warm,” Wheaton tells me. “Here in Buffalo, we have an engine plant. They were doing hair cuts out in the parking lots for the strike line and saying, ‘Hey, let’s help you do some of this stuff.’ So you get community support, food kitchens and food banks and stuff, but it’s not easy. Strikes are very hard.”