By Eli Rosenberg

The Washington Post

General Motors has dropped health care plans for tens of thousands of striking workers, a move that underscored tensions between the two sides as negotiations continue two days into the stoppage.

The United Auto Workers, which represents the roughly 49,000 workers whose walkout has effectively halted GM’s production in the United States, released an internal letter Tuesday that said it had been given notice that the company had stopped health care benefits because of the strike.

The UAW said it would “provide medical assistance,” or cover employees’ health care fees under COBRA in the interim from the pool of money it keeps for strikes.

The strike effectively began Monday morning, and there have been few signs of any significant progress in negotiations. On Wednesday, GM dismissed 1,200 workers from an assembly plant in Ontario, Canada, saying the temporary layoffs were the result of parts shortages in the United States because of the strike.

The health care move appeared to signal the potential that the impasse will last longer than the last stoppage at GM: two days in 2007.

That’s in part because the current action unfolds in a more charged political dynamic, with the left wing increasingly focusing on issues surrounding wages and livability amid a broader debate about economic inequality.

At GM, which has had robust profits as the economy has churned in recent years, workers are clamoring for what they say is a more equitable contract and more job security after years of concessions during the recession.

GM spokesman David Barnas said the decision to cut workers’ health care was a standard practice during stoppages, likening it to the cessation of worker paychecks. Employee dental and vision plans will not be covered during the strike.

Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California at Berkeley, said the mechanics of the move were uncommon.

“They’re sending a message,” he said of GM. “This is a public relations risk. With all the [national] focus on health care and concerns over health care, for the company to be oblivious to this … misses a beat or two, and that could become problematic.”