Soldiers of Solidarity Reaching a Bigger Audience Than Ever Before
By Jason Roberson
“We’re not biting the hand that feeds us. We’re biting the hand that slapped us in the face, that defeated and robbed us. First we’re going to bite the hand and then we’re going to go for the throat.” —Gregg Shotwell
Gregg Shotwell is a hero to a crowd of 150 blue-collar workers packed tight in a dim, smoke-filled bar in Flint. The 55-year-old hourly Delphi Corp. worker has just finished a rally from a karaoke stage calling on his coworkers to slow down production on their assembly lines.
Shotwell, a machine operator at Delphi’s fuel-injector plant in Coopersville, is slender, prefers wearing sweaters and stands at just 5 feet, 6 inches tall, but in this bar he is a giant, working the crowd like a candidate, slightly squinting as he listens to people talk.
“I was born for conflict,” the Grand Rapids native said, slouched in a chair, grinning with a beer in hand.”
To his supporters, Shotwell is fighting for 34,000 hourly Delphi workers facing the end of the American Dream. He has become the bullhorn-bolstered voice in their battle against sharp cuts in jobs, pay and benefits that would dramatically cut their standard of living.
Shotwell’s words have stirred a movement ready to strike Delphi: “We’re not biting the hand that feeds us. We’re biting the hand that slapped us in the face, that defeated and robbed us. First we’re going to bite the hand and then we’re going to go for the throat.
To his critics, Shotwell is complicating negotiations to help Delphi emerge from bankruptcy. They say his actions could lead to a strike, starving Delphi’s biggest customer, General Motors Corp., of parts and perhaps pushing it into bankruptcy, too.
Even if Shotwell is just a gadfly whose efforts will fail, those trying to bring new investment to Michigan worry that his brash talk is scaring away companies like Toyota Motor Corp., which is considering the state for an engine plant it will build in the United States.
Soldiers of Solidarity
Delphi once was GM’s parts-making subsidiary and spun off as an independent company in 1999. But it has never been consistently profitable. It lost $4.8 billion in 2004. After losing another $741 million during the first six months of 2005, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Oct. 8.
The maker of everything from satellite radio receivers to radiators says it is burdened with restrictive labor contracts that require it to pay far more than its competitors—$27 an hour in wages and $76 an hour when benefits are added.”
The solution Delphi initially presented its workers: Eliminate 24,000 of its 34,000 hourly jobs from the U.S. workforce and reduce the wages to an average $12.50 an hour, or $35 an hour when benefits are added.
Shotwell was outraged and formed Soldiers of Solidarity, a group of Delphi workers that has no official membership roles or dues, just a shared desire to fight for their jobs.
He has thrust himself into the limelight by holding how-to-strike meetings in hotel conference rooms in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and New York and by writing sharp commentaries criticizing GM, Delphi and the UAW on blogs and in newsletters.
“You can’t put a collar on Soldiers of Solidarity and rein it in and rein it out,” Shotwell said to the lively beer-drinking crowd, some of whom responded, “‘Amen, brother.”
The silent treatment
It’s doubtful the group will sway the UAW’s decisions, said Robert Chiaravalli, a labor lawyer and principal at Strategic Labor and Human Resources LLC in West Bloomfield.
“They are a voice and I would have to believe the UAW listens,” said Chiaravalli, who has worked for the union and has served on the National Labor Relations Board. “Does it change any of the broad-brush strategies they have? I don’t think so.”
Even if Shotwell does not succeed, his activism scares Toyota about bringing an engine plant to the region, said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. He has been assisting Gov. Jennifer Granholm in her bid to attract Japanese automotive investment.
“The UAW is extremely concerned that this group is getting publicity that goes way beyond their numbers,” Cole said. “With all the complexity of the negotiations, there’s fear that dissidents will gain even more attraction during the UAW elections in June.”
Companies and union officials said they will not talk about Shotwell on the record, saying they want to avoid giving him unnecessary attention.
The other side of the tracks
Those who know him best say Shotwell may come across like a pest, but in reality he has a desire to help others.
Shotwell’s parents weren’t activists, but they fostered skills he uses today. His mother stayed at home and his father was a salesman—and an alcoholic.
“It was an unhappy home for many reasons,” Shotwell said. “‘But one thing my father always did was listen to me, and because he listened to me he made me feel that what I had to say had value. I guess that’s why I’m not afraid to say what needs to be said.”
The Shotwells lived near the railroad tracks in segregated Grand Rapids. To play baseball in the late 1950s, Shotwell had to cross the tracks and play on an all-black baseball team.
“In that experience I became more acutely sensitive to injustice and inequality,” Shotwell said. “‘I was taken out of my comfort zone and put in an experience where I was a minority and had to stand up for myself.”
Sheila Shotwell, Gregg Shotwell’s wife of 33 years, travels with him to every rally.
The couple have three kids and two grandkids. Sheila Shotwell had to put her foot down recently to make sure her husband didn’t miss a party for their 5-year-old grandson Jack.
“I can crack the whip when I need to,” she said, smiling.
She worries that her husband isn’t getting enough rest.
“I have to remind him that a human being needs to sleep,” Sheila Shotwell said, pausing to stare at him across the bar. “He gets hundreds of e-mails every week. He’s always on that cell phone answering questions.”
A campaign against harassment
James Jean, a coworker and friend of Gregg Shotwell since meeting him in 1985 at a Delphi employee orientation class, recalled his plant-wide efforts 10 years ago to help a single mother at Delphi’s Coopersville plant who was fired a week before Christmas. She claimed a supervisor harassed her.
Shotwell helped organize workers into rejecting overtime, slowing production and wearing bright red T-shirts that read “‘Stop Harassment” on the front and “Injury to One is Injury to All” on the back. The worker got her job back and the supervisor was forced to attend sensitivity training, Jean said.
“We were friends before, but when he did that we became pretty close,” Jean said at the bar.
Shotwell fought the UAW leadership during the 2003 contract talks by trying to convince his coworkers to vote against a plan that instituted a two-tiered system that gave new workers less pay and pension benefits than established workers. Many workers were relieved to see any wage increases and were happy with the $3,000 lump-sum signing bonus.
After Shotwell demanded a copy of the original contract language, he printed what he called the low-lights of the deal. The contract passed, but Shotwell said, “Now we can honestly look into the eyes of new hires and say...we tried, we honestly tried.”
It’s not hard to see why Shotwell’s in-your-face approach has resulted in him being escorted out of the Coopersville plant a couple of times, usually for distributing fiery leaflets.
A growing audience
Not all UAW members who attend Shotwell’s strike preparation meetings buy into the Soldiers of Solidarity’s confrontational strategy. Kurt Barikmo, an hourly Delphi worker from Milwaukee, attended a meeting near his plant but was not completely impressed. Barikmo instead took the initiative to mail a letter expressing his frustrations to Delphi’s bankruptcy judge.
“I am not a Soldiers of Solidarity member and have some reservations about the group’s approach,” Barikmo said. But Shotwell’s burning desire to help workers is clearly reaching a bigger audience than ever before.
“I am humbled by this experience,” Shotwell said to a rowdy standing ovation of blue jeans and untucked shirts. “I am not the voice of Soldiers of Solidarity. You are the voice.”
—Detroit Free Press, February 27, 2006