UAW contract set to expire; workers, auto industry await next step | News Coverage from USA

UAW contract set to expire; workers, auto industry await next step

Jamie L. LaReau

Detroit Free Press

Published 10:27 PM EDT Sep 14, 2019

DETROIT – With just hours left before the United Auto Workers contract with General Motors expires, UAW leadership told members that “significant differences” remained over key issues and bargaining would continue right up to the 11:59 p.m. EDT Saturday deadline.

In a letter sent to union officers Saturday evening, UAW Vice President for General Motors Department Terry Dittes said the contract with GM would not be extended, but no immediate strike was contemplated. The union told GM that workers would report for their shifts Sunday.

“No decisions or actions will be taken” until after a National Council meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday in Detroit, the letter said.

One labor expert said the real deadline now becomes 10 a.m. as UAW members work without a contract Sunday and the real threat of a strike looms, possibly pushing GM to bargain harder. 

In the letter obtained by the Detroit Free Press, Dittes reported “some progress” in negotiations since his last update about nine days ago.

But, “We still have many outstanding issues remaining, including significant differences between the parties on wages, health care benefits, temporary employees, job security and profit sharing.”

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General Motors said in a statement: “We continue to work hard on solutions to some very difficult challenges. We are prepared to negotiate around the clock because there are thousands of GM families and their communities – and many thousands more at our dealerships and suppliers – counting on us for their livelihood.”

Union members working without a contract is legal and “it is not unusual in circumstances like this,” said Harley Shaiken, professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He specializes in labor issues.

In other industries, union workers can and often have worked without a contract while the union leaders continue to negotiate, said Shaiken. In this case, he suspects it is a short-term measure that will not impact a lot of workers because tomorrow is a Sunday.

“I suspect once the national council meets, Terry Dittes will inform them where they are and recommend the various options,” said Shaiken. “The union and the executive board will make a decision as to if it’s close enough to warrant an extension or is it far enough apart on major issues to do one of two things.”

Those two things would be to either pick a anothr target company to negotiate a tentative new contract with first other than GM, or strike.

“But to do either, they want as informed a leadership as possible and they want that support,” said Shaiken. “A strike is tough on workers, but they could get that support if necessary. Reading between the lines, they’ve made progress, but they have significant issues. They’ll either have an extension, a strike or a new target company and we’ll know that by noon tomorrow.”

No one knows whether a strike would be nationwide at every GM plant or at targeted plants, he said.

“The real deadline now is 10 a.m. (Sunday), and GM might negotiate harder now that they know there is a possibility of a strike,” said Shaiken. “We’re in unchartered waters and it’s hard to know what’s happening.”

The UAW, which represents nearly 150,000 hourly workers at GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has chosen to negotiate a new contract first with GM. That deal will serve as a template for the UAW’s later talks with the other two.

UAW local leaders have been outlining to members the procedure to follow if they are told to strike.

Many believe a strike is a liklihood given union members’ resistance to making concessions after doing so during the Great Recession to help Detroit automakers survive.

Also, the union is bitter over GM’s decision announced last fall that it would indefinitely idle four of its U.S. plants. The UAW has vowed to leave no stone unturned in fighting to get new product to build in those plants, which include Lordstown Assembly in Ohio, Detroit-Hamtramck and transmission plants in Warren and Baltimore.

The talks are playing out against the backdrop of a federal corruption investigation now touching the highest levels of the union. Charges against regional director Vance Pearson implicated UAW President Gary Jones and immediate past President Dennis Williams in the misuse of union money.

The union negotiates a new contract with the automakers every four years. In 2015 the UAW chose to lead with FCA. If the UAW leadership believes it must strike, members at all three companies have voted to authorize one.

The bargaining with GM has progressed methodically. Both sides faced a lot of issues at the table.

The UAW’s rank and file want a base wage increase. They also seek to protect benefits and to narrow the wage gap between workers hired after 2007 compared with those who’ve worked at GM before 2007. They also want to establish a plan for temporary employees to go permanent, among other things.

But job security is critical too given GM’s November 2018 announcement that it would idle four U.S. plants. Detroit-Hamtramck is the only one continuing to operate, but GM plans to shut it down in January.

For its part, GM and other automakers seek to control costs amid trade and tariff uncertainties, unclear fuel economy standards and a predicted economic downturn on the horizon that could hurt sales. Health care costs are some of the highest for automakers and that also remains an issue.

Follow Jamie L. LaReau on Twitter: @jlareauan 


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