Will GM Workers Stay Out On Strike In Hopes of a Better Deal?

Chris Brooks and Jane Slaughter

Members of the United Auto Workers strike in front of the General Motors Flint Truck Assembly Plant September 25, 2007 in Flint, Michigan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

They always say it will take mul­ti­ple agree­ments to reach equal­i­ty — we can’t win it all in one go,” said Sean Craw­ford, a sec­ond-tier work­er at Flint Truck Assem­bly in Michigan.

For Craw­ford, the GM strike, the longest at a Big 3 com­pa­ny in 50 years, was the best chance the union had to put an end to the many tiers that have frac­tured the workforce.

This is the third con­tract since the 2009 bank­rupt­cy — that is a third of a career,” Craw­ford said. If we don’t get this now, when GM is more prof­itable than they have ever been, when will we ever get it? So no, I don’t sup­port the contract.”

GM’s prof­its were $35 bil­lion over the last three years.

After near­ly six weeks on the pick­et lines, auto work­ers will make a sober­ing choice: accept the agree­ment pro­posed or vote no and stay out in the hopes of get­ting some­thing bet­ter. In 2015 Chrysler work­ers reject­ed their ten­ta­tive agree­ment 2 – 1 and sent bar­gain­ers back for more. GM work­ers, vot­ing lat­er, approved their pact by just 58 per­cent for pro­duc­tion work­ers; skilled trades vot­ed it down.

UAW lead­ers decid­ed that work­ers will remain on strike dur­ing the rat­i­fi­ca­tion vote. Vot­ing will end Fri­day, Octo­ber 25 by 4:00 p.m.

Tiers main­tained

The con­tract makes some gains. Work­ers will receive 3 per­cent rais­es in the first and third years of the con­tract and lump-sums equal to 4 per­cent of annu­al wages in the sec­ond and fourth years. Sec­ond-tier work­ers, who until now were on an eight-year track to get with­in a few dol­lars of first-tier work­ers’ pay, will now top out at equal pay — $32.32 — at the end of the con­tract, a short­er four-year track. The cap on prof­it shar­ing has been lift­ed and a path­way has been cre­at­ed for thou­sands of tem­po­rary work­ers to become per­ma­nent once they’ve been temps for three years.

In Jan­u­ary, they will con­vert 850 tem­po­rary work­ers and will con­tin­ue con­vert­ing each month after that as peo­ple get their time, so they will con­vert up to 2,000 in 2020,” said Tim Stan­nard, pres­i­dent of UAW Local 1853 in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

John, a 35-year work­er at Detroit-Ham­tram­ck Assem­bly, said on the pick­et line today, What we’re get­ting is what we’re going to get. It’s not a bad-look­ing con­tract.” Was the strike worth it? Yes. The temps got moved up. There’s decent rais­es. Health care stayed the same.”

Even with these gains, though, GM has main­tained all the tiers that it had before. Sec­ond-tier work­ers — those per­ma­nent employ­ees hired after 2007 — will still receive a 401(k) for retire­ment rather than a defined pen­sion. They are not eli­gi­ble for retiree health care, and their Sup­ple­men­tal Unem­ploy­ment Ben­e­fits when laid off will last half as long as first-tier workers’.

GM work­ers at ware­hous­es and at four com­po­nents” plants will con­tin­ue to make far less than assem­bly work­ers, with an eight-year grow-in.

And tem­po­rary work­ers will con­tin­ue at pay bare­ly more than half that of Tier 1 work­ers. GM can con­tin­ue to use them as pro­ba­tion­ary employ­ees – with a very long probation.

I know the lan­guage says that temps will be in pro­gres­sion to be hired in as employ­ees after so many years, but they are still using temps,” said Beth Baryo, a mate­ri­als han­dler at a parts ware­house near Flint.

Under the new agree­ment, temps hired after Jan­u­ary 1, 2021 who main­tain two years of con­tin­u­ous employ­ment must be hired on as per­ma­nent. Temps can be laid off for up to 30 days and still main­tain con­tin­u­ous service.

As sure as god wears san­dals, you know that GM will lay peo­ple off for 31 days,” said Baryo. I don’t trust any­thing they will say.”

What they did­n’t win

The biggest sting of all was the shut­ter­ing of Lord­stown (Ohio) Assem­bly, War­ren (Michi­gan) Pow­er­train, and Bal­ti­more Pow­er­train, which GM announced last Thanks­giv­ing. Every con­tract cycle, GM clos­es more plants and every con­tract cycle the UAW claims to have stronger lan­guage to pro­tect jobs.

The steady pro­ces­sion of con­ces­sions was also sold as a job-sav­ing mea­sure and yet the num­ber of union auto work­ers employed by GM has dropped from 470,000 in 1979, when con­ces­sions began to the Big 3, to less than 50,000 today.

Many of the con­ces­sions made in 2007 and 2009 are still in effect, show­cas­ing just how chal­leng­ing it is for the union to get out of the hole it is in. Those include a cost of liv­ing allowance and over­time pay after eight hours (many plants now work reg­u­lar 10-hour days with­out over­time pay). Tier 2 work­ers got noth­ing for retire­ment. Future Tier 1 retirees got one $1,000 lump sum.

How will they vote?

As often hap­pens in a strike, many peo­ple unhap­py with the agree­ment pre­dict­ed that oth­er peo­ple would vote yes. Peo­ple are going to say yes because of the mon­ey,” said Adri­ana Jaime, a 21-year work­er at Detroit-Ham­tram­ck Assem­bly, at the pick­et line today. But for the weeks we’ve been walk­ing here, it’s not enough.”

One man said the offer was basi­cal­ly the same as what GM offered before the strike, except for the sign­ing bonus (which increased from $8,000 to $11,000). I’m not impressed,” he said. But a lot of peo­ple want to get back to work.”

Jack Jack­son, with 50 years, will vote no. I’m mad as hell,” he said. This con­tract was prob­a­bly decid­ed before we even went out and this was a show and tell, a lit­tle pony show.

I hope it’s good for the young folks. It should be 90 days and you’re at full pay. This con­tract is real­ly not for me. Give the retirees some mon­ey — our pen­sion ben­e­fit has been the same for 12 or 15 years. You ded­i­cate half your life to GM and they treat the retirees like an old horse they take out in the field and shoot him. We didn’t get the retiree issues — and the peo­ple com­ing behind me are going to retire some­day too.”

Car­la Duck­ett, with 37 years, says she’s on the fence. I’m going to retire — I want to see what this leaves for those who have to stay.”

The lead­er­ship is going to try and make the case that this is the best they can get,” Craw­ford said, but if you look at the 2015 agree­ment, after Chrysler peo­ple vot­ed that down, they came back with some­thing sig­nif­i­cant­ly better.”

Ara­mark jan­i­tors also have an agreement.

The 850 Ara­mark jan­i­tors and skilled trades work­ers at five Ohio and Michi­gan GM plants who struck along­side GM work­ers were told yes­ter­day that they also have a ten­ta­tive agree­ment. They do work for­mer­ly done by GM work­ers, but at far less pay.

Every­one makes $15. If you’ve been there 10 years you still make $15.” said Karen Cool, from GM’s Tech Cen­ter near Detroit. GM hired replace­ment jan­i­tors dur­ing the strike who, with police sup­port, crossed pick­et lines there daily.

The south­ern problem

Eco­nom­ic con­straints placed on the Big Three by the influx of for­eign-owned, non-union automak­ers in the U.S. South are one of the forces out­side the con­trol of strik­ing GM workers.

Even though GM has gone from bank­rupt to prof­itable, the com­pa­ny is still los­ing mar­ket share to these non-union com­peti­tors like Toy­ota, Nis­san, BMW, Hon­da, and Volk­swa­gen. All use high pro­por­tions of tem­po­raries and con­tract work­ers at will. The UAW has engaged in three high-pro­file orga­niz­ing dri­ves at Nis­san and Volk­swa­gen over the past five years, los­ing all of them.

Until the whole auto indus­try is orga­nized, non-union employ­ers will pay their work­ers less, give few­er ben­e­fits, hire more temps, and out­source more work, to gain a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage over their union rivals.

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes.

Chris Brooks is an orga­niz­er and writer for Labor Notes. Jane Slaugh­ter is a for­mer edi­tor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Suc­cess­ful Organizer.
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