DETROIT - UAW member Kenneth Mefford has a vivid memory of the 2015 contract negotiations. He almost walked off the assembly line onto a picket line.
It was one minute before midnight on the expiration date of the union's contract. Workers had heard nothing on whether a new tentative deal had been struck.
"Everything stopped. We all stopped working," said Mefford, who works at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' Warren Truck Assembly plant in Warren. "We were looking around at each other as to what do we do?"
So Mefford and his co-workers started walking off the job, he said. Then, in what he describes as "a scene in a movie," a team leader came running in the plant. She yelled: 'Don't walk out! Don't walk out! Don't walk off the line! They got a tentative contract!' "
"There was a minute to go," Mefford said. "They had the signs printed and what the times were for us to report for a strike. They literally signed a deal a minute before we were ready to walk off."
Mefford and other veteran UAW members suspect the rank-and-file will face acute anxiety again this year at 11:59 p.m. Saturday because if, by midnight, there's no tentative deal or an extension of the current one, workers could walk.
"They're going right up to the wire," said Harley Shaiken, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor issues. "What truly focuses the mind on both sides of these talks is the possibility of a strike."
The UAW workers who've gone through this process, including past strikes, say the experience is angst-riddled, yet powerful.
The UAW, which represents nearly 150,000 hourly workers at Ford Motor Co., General Motors and FCA, has chosen to negotiate a new contract first with GM. That deal will serve as a template for the UAW's later talks with the other two. In 2015, the UAW led with FCA. The union negotiates a new contract with the automakers every four years.
If the UAW leadership believes it must strike, members at all three companies have voted to authorize one. That doesn't mean the union will strike, but no one really knows until the 11th hour.
"At one minute before midnight, if there's not something negotiated, the union will call for an extension or a work stoppage," said Tommy Wolikow, who works at GM's Flint Assembly plant. "I am definitely stressed out about it. The last thing anybody wants is a strike. But sometimes that's what needs to happen, and the membership is ready to do that."
To prepare to live on the $250 weekly strike pay, Wolikow, 37, has been working as much overtime as he can and reducing any discretionary spending. He just sold his house near Lordstown, Ohio, where GM indefinitely idled its plant. Wolikow had worked at Lordstown for nearly 12 years.
Besides Lordstown, GM plans to close three other U.S. plants: Detroit-Hamtramck and transmission plants in Warren and Baltimore. GM said those closures and cutting about 4,000 white-collar jobs will save it at least $2 billion this year. But the plant closures have embittered many UAW members.
"I want nothing more than to hear that Lordstown is getting a new product," said Wolikow. "I'd love to go home. My 11-year-old daughter lives in that area and I want to be close to her."
FCA's Mefford said he wants to avoid a strike too. At 57, Mefford has worked for FCA and its Chrysler predecessor for 26 years and said the idea of going on strike is "kind of scary. I'm thinking of buying a house and retirement so it's kind of scary."
Mefford makes about $31 an hour, he said, but his paycheck has fluctuated so he has not been able to save much. The strike wage would be a strain on him, he said.
"The only thing saving me is I'm a Gulf War vet so I get a small pension," Mefford said.
If anyone knows the hardship and sacrifice that accompanies a strike it's the old-timers such as Gary Walkowicz and Claire McClinton.
Walkowicz, 70, is a local union representative on the bargaining committee at Ford Dearborn truck plant. He has worked for Ford for 45 years. In 1976, he participated in a 28-day walkout.
"A strike is certainly a hardship for the workers," said Walkowicz. "It's difficult to make ends meet and pay your bills. It's not a thing people should take lightly."
But the unified act of fighting for better benefits, wages or job security can also be inspiring, Walkowicz said.
"One thing that the workers feel is their collective strength and power when they do go on strike," said Walkowicz. "By withholding our labor, we have some negotiating power over the companies."
The issues at stake in 1976 are a blur to Walkowicz now and he's hard-pressed to say whether the strike was a victory for union members or not.
"I was very new at that time and I wasn't aware of the issues, so it's hard to look back and judge it," Walkowicz said. "But I understand now what unions are all about and the power of the working class. Sometimes it's necessary for the workers to strike."
McClinton, also 70, said walking off the job to strike is one of her most compelling memories of her 30-year career at GM.
In June 1998, McClinton and about 9,000 UAW members at two parts plants in Flint walked out over what they believed were poor working conditions. This was part of local negotiations, not national contract talks, but these parts plants fed integral car components to other GM assembly plants. The 54-day strike at the two factories shut down all GM production and the carmaker's sales plummeted.
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"It was very intense when we walked out, but it was very invigorating because the working conditions had gotten so poor in the plant that we were motivated to walk out when we did," said McClinton, who retired from GM's Flint Metal Center in 2009.
Even though McClinton and her co-workers were mentally ready for a strike, they faced the uncertainty of not knowing how long it could last. McClinton said she squeaked by on the strike wage. But she remembers how many others struggled.
"It was tough on a lot of families, but the union had organized where we did get strike pay and they were able to set up help for people who got behind on rents and work with the landlords," said McClinton. "Some of the banks were lenient on home payments because General Motors was a key employer in Flint. But in rare cases, people were confronted with foreclosures."
The union held strong, she said, with a motto: "We would last one day longer than General Motors."
McClinton said the hardship of the strike was worth it. The working conditions improved and the UAW gained job security. But since she retired, she said UAW members have given up a lot of benefits to help the automakers during the Great Recession, including tying her retiree health care to a trust fund instead of the company.
"It could be depleted and a lot of it is tied to the market, so the market could go down and the trust fund goes down. We're at the mercy that the health care trust will last over our lifetime," McClinton said. "So we're really looking forward to some victories in these upcoming round of negotiations."
The 1998 strike at McClinton's Flint location bled over to a now-shuttered GM stamping plant in Mansfield, Ohio, where a UAW worker who asked to not be identified because he's still employed by the automaker said he walked the picket line for nine days.
This worker said he has experienced two strikes during his 22 years working for GM.
The second strike was in 2007; it was related to national bargaining where production at more than 80 GM facilities in the United States came to halt. The standoff was over the union's demand for job guarantees after making health care concessions.
The UAW let the contract expire at midnight. Around noon, this UAW worker got a call telling him to not go to the plant for his shift. Instead, report to the union hall. There, members, "got our assignments and different people went to different areas. It started and basically we walked our line."
He picketed for about six hours during the two-day strike, but he was ready to go longer.
"We were prepared to do whatever it took," he said. "That's where we're at today with all the outsourcing of jobs that GM has done and the plant closings and the bonuses that GM's upper management have given themselves and the concessions we've taken in the last 15 years. We're ready for a strike."
Labor expert Shaiken agreed. The talks will be tough because GM is bracing for an economic slowdown and, with uncertainties over tariffs and trade issues, GM is not expected to bend to the union's will.
GM's decision to close plants and the fact that UAW members at all three carmakers say they gave up pay and benefits over the past decade to help the companies when they were struggling means the rank-and-file expect payback and job security, he said.
"A strike is not an idle threat and it's not posturing," said Shaiken. "For the union, the anger is deep and they are prepared to use a strike to reach a settlement."
Mario Washington, 48, is counting on getting a deal made without a strike.
Washington worked at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant in 2007 when workers walked off the job for those two days. He never got to walk the picket line then, he said, because the strike was so brief.
But when the union says, "We're gonna walk," it's a "powerful moment," said Washington, who has worked at GM for 19 years.
"I never got my turn to picket, but if I did, I'd march with my brothers and sisters for however long it took," said Washington. "It's the unity of the union for me. I've worked in other plants without a union and you had no rights."
Washington has saved money if he has to strike and is paid just $250 a week. But he is hoping to avoid one. He and his co-workers at Flint Assembly, where he works now, are focused on work, not the negotiations or the possibility of walking off the job, Washington said.
The rank and file have been clear about what matters to them in a new contract: Protecting wages and benefits, seeking a better work-life balance, establishing a path for temporary employees to go permanent and mitigating job injuries, among other things.
Some union members worry the negotiations might be tainted in the wake of an FBI and Internal Revenue Service raid late last month at the home of UAW President Gary Jones. Nine people have been charged in a long-running investigation of the UAW. All but one were associated with misuse of money intended for training at the UAW-FCA joint training center.
Despite the demands and the cloud of the investigation into the UAW, Washington said he still has faith in union leaders to win the best deal possible and GM to compromise enough to avoid a strike.
"There are some who did wrong, but there are a lot who are about the business of helping members of the UAW," said Washington. "I don't think there'll be a strike because GM has so many hot vehicles coming, they can't afford for the UAW to walk."
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