Auto Workers Say: Look Beyond the Bonuses

Ford F-150 pickup trucks are assembled at the Dearborn Truck Plant. Shop floor rep Gary Walkowicz fears temps at the plant could swell to 15 percent of the workforce if the new contract is approved. Photo: Jim West.

When you read the United Auto Workers’ summaries of new contracts at the Big Three, you can get lost in a thicket of bonuses: $500 here, $250 there, $1,000 as a quality award, big profit-sharing checks, signing bonuses of $2,000 to $8,500 to help ensure ratification.

The prose of the lengthy summaries is interrupted by charts showing how much each contract feature will mean in dollars and cents over four years, both for “traditional” (first-tier) workers and those “in progression” to top pay (second-tier). The money adds up.

The big fact that gets lost in the forest of figures is that union bargainers have quietly but completely given up on features that used to make UAW contracts the envy of all: Pensions. Cost-of-living increases folded into the wage. Overtime pay after eight hours a day.

The UAW gave these up in 2007, when the union accepted a second tier that cut wages almost in half, and in 2009 as part of the infamous auto bankruptcies.

“It’s hard to argue today that Detroit Three autoworkers are an elite or pampered group,” points out Detroit Free Press columnist Tom Walsh. “In just seven years, [Chrysler], Ford or GM production workers have surrendered half the wage premium they enjoyed over other U.S. manufacturing workers in 2008.”

Which Company Should Set the Pattern?

UAW dissidents are cynics. They believe their leaders were so deep in the habit of settling cheaply that they chose to bargain first at Chrysler because it is the weakest of the Big Three. And in fact the signing bonuses won are substantially lower at Chrysler.

At Ford and GM, the union brought second-tier workers’ health insurance up to the first-tier level, but not at Chrysler.

But going to Chrysler first may have backfired on union officials seeking quick ratifications. Forty-five percent of the Chrysler workforce is in the second tier, creating a bigger voting bloc for a “no” vote when negotiators fell short. Ford had about 29 percent in the second tier, and GM 20 percent.

Citing economist Don Grimes, Walsh notes, “While Michigan ranked 11th among the 50 states in per capita income in 1950 and dropped to 18th by 2000, it plunged to 38th in 2009.”

This year, many of the 141,000 Big Three workers are asking: “If we don’t get our concessions back now, when will we ever get them?”


The companies could pay. In the six years from July 2009 to September 2015, Ford made $48.36 billion in profit. GM’s pretax profit in North America was $8.3 billion for 2015’s first nine months. Chrysler made $1.4 billion just in the second quarter, a rate of 7.7 percent; in the same quarter GM was at 10 percent and Ford at 11.1. The money is there to compensate auto workers for their health-destroying labor on health-destroying shifts.

And with gas prices low, the factories are working full-out. Any interruption of production would have cost the companies a bundle within a few days.

Ford’s Kansas City plant makes the most popular truck in the U.S., the F-150, selling for $30,000 to $60,000. UAW member Tino Scalici says, “We are an award-winning plant. Our speedup is through the roof. We are industrial athletes out on the factory floor.” He points out that “Ford Motor Co. will sell one truck for more money than the line worker makes in one year. Or they can get two ‘in-progression’ workers for that.”

Skilled Trades and a ‘No’ Vote

In 2011 Chrysler skilled workers voted no on the national contract but the union declared it ratified anyway. Executive board members decided that tradespeople had voted no because they didn’t like the money in the pact, rather than for issues specific to the trades, such as combination and elimination of their jobs.

The union constitution does not say that workers have to give particular reasons for their “no” vote in order for it to count.

Three Chrysler tradespeople appealed the board’s unilateral ratification, and hundreds of tradespeople signed on. The union’s Public Review Board—a quasi-independent body that rubber-stamps International Executive Board decisions virtually every time—turned them down.

Now the UAW is taking its creative 2011 interpretation as precedent and looking for reasons to say the GM trades simply wanted more money this year.

But the Chrysler “no” vote four years ago had an impact. In an open letter, the three Chrysler tradespeople said that a number of their trades that had been slated to be combined were restored as separate trades. They advised, “This time you, GM tradespeople who voted no, will have the opportunity to state your objections....Every trades concern should be raised at these meetings.”



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George Windau represents the trades at the Toledo Jeep plant, where 80 percent of members voted no. “The same frustrations we face, they’re facing,” Windau said.

Scalici says the mood in his plant, one of Ford’s largest, is “no, f&*k no, I hope your children get rickets no.

“They are looking at how much Ford is making, how much they’re paying the CEO. We did what we had to do to bring Ford out of its darkest hour and this is how we’re repaid, when the company is bursting at the seams with cash.”


UAW President Dennis Williams declined to use the union’s leverage, though. Not only did the union hold no strike, there were no buttons worn in the plants, no after-work rallies, no special attention to quality, no bargaining bulletins—none of the ingredients of the contract campaigns that other unions routinely put on to make members’ wishes known to management.

Instead, members see their concessions—made when the industry was reeling—now accepted as the permanent status quo when the plants are booming.

The new money is substantial compared to the prior contracts auto workers have been working under; for instance, till now the first tier had endured a 10-year wage freeze. But the contract's promises are not as substantial as the concessions. Gary Walkowicz, a shop floor rep at Ford’s giant Rouge complex outside Detroit, wrote in a leaflet, “It does not repay us for all the concessions we have given up. It does not even bring us back to the standard of living we were at before the concessions started.”


Chrysler workers voted “no” nearly 2 to 1 in September, sending bargainers back to the table after they returned a deal that maintained two-tiered pay.

On their second try, officials returned with an eight-year path to “traditional” pay. Workers voted it up by 77 percent despite the widespread sentiment that an eight-year progression in a four-year contract could easily be derailed.

Still, workers were rightly proud that they had forced a light at the end of the tunnel for second-tier workers, when the international hadn’t even requested it from the company. At a meeting of local officials called to present the first deal, Williams insisted, “Ending two-tier is bullshit.”

The union bargained at GM next, and, perhaps emboldened by the strong “no” vote at Chrysler, GM skilled trades workers (electricians, tool and die, pipefitters, etc.) rejected their pact as well, by almost 60 percent. (Production workers voted in favor by 58 percent.)

Production and skilled votes are counted separately. In order for a contract to be ratified, the UAW requires that both vote yes. The union is now holding plant-level meetings to determine what the trades’ issues are (see box).

Lots More Tiers

The three contracts create a host of new tiers that vary from company to company. Here’s a list of tiers in descending order of pay—and it doesn’t include outside contractors.

  • Traditional skilled trades
  • Trades hired after October 2011 (no pensions)
  • Traditional production workers (hired before 2007)
  • Current “in-progression” production workers (eight years from their hiring date to regular pay, no pension)
  • Future in-progression production workers (four or seven years to less than regular pay, no pension)
  • Current temps
  • Current axle workers and some other parts workers
  • Future axle and parts workers
  • Future temps (Ford has four different pay scales just for temps)


Ford workers just began voting on a deal with the largest signing bonus of the three: $8,500. Ford even promised to prepay $1,500 of next year’s profit-sharing, to make it an even $10,000. Walkowicz said members found that blatant pandering a bit insulting to their intelligence. (Workers complain that unlike their wages, all their bonuses are taxed at 42 percent.)

He is also concerned about the new language on temporaries, which could expand their use drastically. At Chrysler, they are no longer called “part-time temporaries” and can be used any day of the week, not just Mondays and Fridays. Walkowicz foresees temps growing to up to 15 percent of the workforce at the Dearborn Truck plant, which also makes the F-150.

It’s hard to keep count, but the contracts seem to enshrine at least seven tiers for production workers (see box). One lower tier is for axle and other parts workers, at all three companies.

Facebook pages like “Speak Out 2015 UAW Ford Contract” are awash with alarm. Shelly Smith said that she was on her fifth plant because of closings. “Now Ford wants tier 3 at Rawsonville, Sterling & Woodhaven & some of you are ok with that!?” she wrote. “What makes you think Ford won’t take the remainder of the non assembly plants & turn them into tier 3 & push for tier 4 next contact!? Next thing you know they’ll go after assembly plants!”

“Just because I build axles doesn’t mean I deserve any less pay or representation,” wrote Scott Moore, who works at Ford’s Sterling Axle factory. “Last time I checked your truck needs axles.
Your tier 2 (soon to be tier 3) UAW half-brother.”

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.