Column: GM strike is another reason to go to school and have options for yourself

I have to say, it’s surreal, and to be honest a bit scary, to see my UAW brothers and sisters at General Motors on strike. In my 23 years with Ford I have never been asked to walk off my job because an agreement couldn’t be reached between the union and the company. Indeed, even now we have agreed to extend our contract while our Union leadership hammers out a contract with GM.

At any rate, I stand with my UAW family at GM because the bleeding out of quality work and competitive wages from our factories is unnecessary.

With that said, I learned as soon as I hired in that auto work was unstable – at least I was told. Many of the old timers that were around back then had experienced devastating long-term layoffs in the late seventies and early eighties. And though the overtime and bonuses were flowing in the nineties (when I hired in) these guys would be quick to remind us youngsters not to get comfortable because of the feast or famine nature of the industry.

Of course when you’re working 70 to 80 hours a week, it’s hard to stop and smell the roses, never-mind heeding the wisdom of your elders. That’s the way most of us rolled throughout the decade and the money was great. Unfortunately, between the time of the tragedy of 9-11 and the ‘08 housing crash, the overtime had dried up and, suddenly, we were all on the brink of losing our jobs as factories were being closed left and right.

I remember around that time seeing the blue oval, Ford’s globally recognized logo, illustrated as a crumbling relic on the front page of one of Detroit’s newspapers with some doom inducing headline. It was a daunting reminder of the warning from the past. Here I was in my mid-30s and my only option was to worry, much like many of the younger generation is doing now. 

It was shortly after that I started using the one benefit that could give me something the Union and Ford alone could not when it comes to job security  –  I started going to college with my negotiated tuition assistance money. One of my biggest brags when it comes to my job, is my UAW benefits, and the education benefit is at the top. Each of the big three’s union members have $5,000- $6,000 a year in tuition assistance to use toward any degree or credited certification they want. 

An emphasis on higher education is something that is built into the ethics of the Union. The UAW statement of education issues the same warning we received from the long-retired old timers back in the day, though perhaps more articulately:

“In a global market, American workers must continue to lead the way in productivity, service and quality. Advanced technology jobs, whether they are in manufacturing, health care, government or any other UAW sector, require advanced knowledge and training. By 2020, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require at least some higher-education, an increase from 59 percent in 2007.”

In a recent article auto workers in Flint were given a platform to speak their grievances and, not surprisingly, much of what they had to say beyond the concern of job loss had to do with physical and mental stress that comes with long term manufacturing work. In a word it’s boring and painful. The only thing I could think was, I wish these folks would go to school. $5000 goes a long way at any of the many community colleges in the area, and tackles a decent chunk of tuition at universities, too.

I started taking night classes in ‘08 and received an associates degree in Photography in 2012. I’m currently three courses shy of having an associates in journalism, and am working toward a bachelors in communication technology. In my off time I freelance (like I’m doing right now). I plan on working at Ford until I am eligible to retire, but no longer fear losing my job, or wonder what I will do if that happens because there is plenty of work available in my chosen field.

I guess this places me as the old-timer in the dialogue at this point, and the reason I’m writing is to say to workers in and out of the auto industry – go to school and carve out options for yourself and your families. The rewards are exponential on so many levels. I promise you won’t regret it.