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September 26, 2019 2:45 PM, EDT

GM Reverses Course, Says Strikers Will Keep Health Coverage

United Auto Workers strike sign A sign is posted during a demonstration outside a General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pa., on Sept. 23, 2019. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

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DETROIT — General Motors now says striking workers will get company-paid health insurance, nine days after telling the union that coverage would be cut off.

The automaker said in an emailed letter to the United Auto Workers that it will keep benefits in place due to “significant confusion” among members. The letter dated Sept. 25 says employee health and well-being are GM’s top priorities.

The about-face came after workers howled and GM received withering criticism from politicians and on social media about cutting off the benefits.

“These irresponsible actions by General Motors are toying with the lives of hundreds of thousands of our UAW families,” UAW Vice President Terry Dittes wrote in a letter Sept. 26 to Scott Sandefur, GM’s vice president of labor relations. Dittes wrote that public sentiment would “see these actions of GM as a shameful act!”

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It wasn’t clear how the rhetoric or the health care spat would affect contract talks aimed at ending the strike by 49,000 workers that has shut down manufacturing for nearly two weeks at more than 30 GM plants across the nation.

“This is an attempt to do what’s right for our employees,” GM spokesman Dan Flores said.

It’s normal procedure in strikes for the cost of health care to shift from the company, which is largely self-insured, to the union. It says on the union website that the UAW will pick up the cost of the premiums. But the timing of when GM ends the health care and when the union takes over is at issue. The UAW said the benefits lapsed, but did not give a date.

Sandefur wrote in his letter that GM has chosen to work with health providers to keep benefits fully in place for workers “so they have no disruption to their medical care, including vision, prescription and dental coverage.”

Talks continued Sept. 26, a day after Dittes wrote a letter to members saying that committees had finished their work and the talks had moved to the main table of top bargainers, a sign of progress. Experts say the top bargainers would have to decide contentious economic issues such as wages, profit sharing, giving temporary workers a path to full-time jobs, products for plants GM wants to close and other issues that could take a lot of time.