DETROIT – The UAW will seek to negotiate a contract with General Motors this fall as a template for talks with Detroit’s two other automakers, setting up a confrontation with a company that has angered workers with plans to idle four U.S. factories.
UAW leadership made the decision, spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.
Factory workers have said they feel angry and mistreated by the company since GM’s announcement of plant reductions in November.
“Mary Barra said from the outset of these talks that we will stand up (together) as we tackle a changing industry. We are ready to stand strong for our future,” UAW President Gary Jones said in a statement released at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
“We are focused. We are prepared and we are all ready to stand up (together) for our members, our communities and our manufacturing future,” Jones said.
GM responded: “We look forward to having constructive discussions with the UAW on reaching an agreement that builds a strong future for our employees and our business,” said a statement from David Barnas, a GM spokesman.
The UAW, which represents nearly 150,000 hourly workers at Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, also said workers at each local of all three companies have voted to authorize a strike: 95.98% approval at Ford, 96.4% at GM and 96% at FCA.
The strike authorization is procedural and routine, part of the bargaining process that happens every four years when a new national contract is being negotiated. The current pact expires Sept. 14.
“The vote does not mean there will or will not be a strike. It gives authority to the UAW international president and international executive board to call for a strike,” the UAW said.
“No one goes into collective bargaining taking a strike lightly,” Jones said. “But it is a key tool in the tool belt as our bargaining team sits across from the company. Ultimately, the company holds that destiny in their hands as they bargain. Clearly the UAW stood up for them in a very dark time,” a reference to concessions from the union when GM and FCA predecessor Chrysler were forced into bankruptcy 10 years ago and bailed out by the U.S. government. “Now that they are profitable, it is time for them to stand up for all of us,” the union said.
The national UAW contract talks, critical each time they are conducted because of the large number of workers affected, the auto industry’s importance to the U.S. economy and their history as a barometer of labor strength, carry extra drama this year. Union leadership is under a darkening cloud because of a corruption investigation that last week led to FBI and Internal Revenue Service raids at Jones’ suburban Detroit home, the California home of Jones’ predecessor, Dennis Williams, and two other UAW sites.
The scandal, previously centered on misspent millions meant to help workers through the union’s joint training center with FCA, has led to nine charged and eight guilty pleas, with the latest charge touching UAW-GM operations and contract kickbacks.
Why choose GM?
Privately, people close to contract negotiations said the union had been leaning toward negotiating with Ford first because the company is perceived as more friendly to workers. No one expected GM to get a pass, but going first is a totally different strategy.
“The UAW chose to take on its toughest target first to set the standard for the industry,” said Harley Shaiken, a University of California, Berkeley professor who talks frequently with labor and industry leaders as a national analyst. “The choice indicates that jobs in general and the fate of GM’s four ‘unallocated’ plants – a term the UAW would like to return to obscurity – in particular, will be front and center in the talks. Addressing this issue will be a heavy lift, but is central to address given the anger of the membership. They sacrificed when times were bad and now they’re being asked to sacrifice in a time of record profits.”
He added, “The UAW has embraced a tough, strategic focus indicating that it doesn’t intend to skip a beat in these critical negotiations whatever the innuendo and unfounded allegations that have emerged in recent days.”
In November, GM said it would idle Lordstown Assembly in Ohio, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, and transmission plants in Warren and near Baltimore, affecting about 2,800 U.S. hourly jobs. The plants are closed except D-Ham, which is operating until January, and whose future is sure to be a topic of the talks.
The company also cut about 4,000 nonunion white-collar workers and closed its Oshawa Assembly plant in Ontario, though Canadian autoworkers have their own union. The restructuring plan will save GM up to $2.5 billion this year, the company said.
“Although I am surprised the UAW picked GM as the target, it makes some sense. The UAW will have the most public perception support due to the high-profile plant closings,” said market economist Jon Gabrielsen, who advises automakers and suppliers.
Marick Masters, business professor at Wayne State University, said the choice makes sense.
“Among the Detroit Three, it appears to be in the best financial position,” he said. “It has also incurred the wrath of many workers for plans to close plants. The challenge for both sides, to avoid a strike, is to manage expectations. A lot is at stake. The negotiations are perhaps more pivotal than those which occurred in 2009 and 2011.”
The current UAW contract with the Detroit Three was hammered out in 2015 without a strike.
But FCA workers are angry that the company has been profitable and they sacrificed during the Great Recession and Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy. UAW members are also upset with union leadership about the scandal involving millions of dollars siphoned from the union and company’s joint training center.
Some in the FCA rank-and-file don’t want Jones overseeing contract talks now, though the union has rejected that notion, saying it has cooperated with the investigation and the use of search warrants last week was grandstanding.
“He should step down during bargaining,” said Kenneth Mefford, a UAW member who works for FCA’s Warren Truck Assembly plant.
Mefford said he and co-workers are frustrated too because local union leaders have not given workers an indication of what a tentative contract might contain.
“We have no idea what we’ll be voting on in two weeks and most of the hierarchy is under federal investigation,” said Mefford. “If you’ve been served or summoned, for the good of everybody, step down.”
UAW members’ anxiety is high at GM too.
“The union is really bitter and angry over the sudden unallocation of products,” said John Ryan Bishop, a UAW worker at GM’s Flint Assembly plant. “GM is using it as a negotiating tactic. It’s had record profits in the past few years, so GM had to have a strong tactic to knock the union back on its heels a little bit.”
GM’s job upheaval
GM declined to comment specifically on the UAW members’ strike authorization.
“GM’s focus during negotiations is to reach an agreement that builds a strong future for our employees and our business,” Barnas said.
GM has said it has jobs for all of its affected hourly workers at its other plants, especially those in growth areas of the business such as Flint Assembly where GM makes its high-selling heavy-duty pickups. But often, the plants with jobs could be in other states, requiring a worker to make a permanent move to stay employed.
The UAW has criticized GM for deciding to produce some vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Blazer SUV, in Mexico. GM defends its production footprint, saying it has 33 plants in the United States and only four in Mexico. GM said it employs 46,000 U.S. hourly workers compared with 16,000 in Mexico and said it’s invested $23 billion in U.S. manufacturing since 2009 compared with $5 billion in Mexico in that time frame.
Ready to walk
The UAW training center scandal is having a negative impact on how the process is viewed by many union members, comments to the Free Press have shown.
Michael Grimes, a former UAW administrative assistant in the union’s GM department who retired last year, pleaded not guilty Aug. 28 in federal court to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. He is accused of conspiring with other union officials to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. The schemes involved millions of dollars in contracts for watches, backpacks and jackets.
UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who used to lead the union’s GM department and now heads the FCA department, was reportedly referenced but not named in the Grimes filing.
GM has said it is cooperating with the investigation. FCA has said it is “a victim of illegal conduct by certain rogue individuals.”
The mess adds to worker anxiety and anger.
GM is “making record-breaking profits and they’re coming after us to take our benefits and our jobs,” said Danielle Murry, a 44-year-old machinist who’s worked for GM for 19 years. She awaits a new role now that GM has idled the Warren Transmission plant where she worked.
Many UAW workers say they are reluctant to give concessions in the current round of talks after helping GM out in 2008. Asked last month whether UAW workers m strike, Murry said, “You have to stand up for yourselves. They’ve done nothing but take from us.”
Similarly, Mario Washington, 48, has worked 19 years for GM, the majority of that time at Detroit-Hamtramck as a forklift driver. In February, he transferred to Flint in the same job.
Washington said the factory jobs are physically taxing on workers’ bodies and the hours can be long, so he doesn’t want to see his wages or benefits compromised.
“I’ve been involved in two strikes, but neither lasted long,” Washington told the Free Press earlier this summer. “But I’ll sit out till the cows come home to preserve our way of life, our jobs and the future employees who want to come in.”