GM Workers Ratify Contract Though 'Mixed at Best'

GM workers on a picket line, one work offscreen with arm raised, another centered with sign with arm raised.

UAW members faced a raft of opportunities and challenges going into these negotiations, some of them unprecedented, some familiar. Photo: Jim West / jimwestphoto.com.

The Auto Workers' strike against General Motors came to a close this weekend after six weeks on the picket lines, with workers voting to ratify a contract that was clearly unloved but accepted with a yes vote of 57 percent.

“I don't think we'll get any more out of it,” said Nelson Worley, who will have 42 years with GM in March. Although he called the proposed deal “mixed at best,” he planned to vote yes, worried about “public perception,” that others would see GM workers as “a bunch of whiners.”

Standing near a burn barrel outside Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Wednesday, Bruno said he would vote yes because “we're not going to get any more out of them. It's unfortunate we had to go out to get the same thing we got before.”

Bruno, who didn't want to give his last name, pointed out that the current offer was built on a base of earlier concessions by the union: “We agreed to temps in previous contracts, and cutting skilled trades down to just 'mechanical' and 'electric'—and the whole idea of two-tier.”

Still, Worley worried about the union's future: “They say 'we'll get 'em next time,'” he said, “but there may not be a next time. We lost 30,000 jobs in the last 10 years.”

RECORD PROFITS AND THE FBI

UAW members faced a raft of opportunities and challenges going into these negotiations, some of them unprecedented, some familiar: several union officials already indicted and UAW president Gary Jones under investigation by the FBI for corruption, auto companies making record profits, auto employment levels at all-time lows, plants closing, and the beginnings of a shift in the industry toward an electric vehicle future.

When the UAW took on General Motors in 1970, then the largest and most powerful industrial firm in the country, there were 470,000 union members on the picket lines. After decades of sped-up assembly lines, outsourced jobs, off-shored factories, and declining market share, that number dwindled to less than 50,000.

In the 1970 strike, the union made clear, aggressive demands: a 30-years-and-out retirement package and unlimited cost-of-living raises—and it won. This time, the union was vaguer: “fair wages, job security, our share of profits, affordable quality healthcare, and a defined path to permanent seniority for temporary workers,” press releases said—and members were told no more than that.

CONTRACT RECAP

Job security. Though union officials spoke of their desire to bring back production from Mexico, the contract is silent on that, and three U.S. factories and one parts depot will close.

Bruno scoffed at the overall investment figures that the Detroit newspapers tout as “won” by the UAW—as if the contract were controlling investment decisions. “$7.7 billion? They have to do that to keep up with technology,” he said.

GM says its investment will “retain or create” 9,000 jobs. But GM has routinely flouted language on investment and job security. When language in the 1980s prohibited plant closings, GM “idled” the factories instead. The most recent term is “unallocated”—as if all that was needed to defeat the once mighty UAW was a thesaurus. In fact, the contract stipulates that the UAW will withdraw its suit against GM for closing its Lordstown, Ohio, plant. Most Lordstown workers have transferred elsewhere, but those remaining voted no 412-61.

No Contract Campaign, No Strike Plan

Over the decades unions have learned a lot about what it takes to win a strike. Yet the UAW used almost none of these tactics.

Yes, production was shut down tight, with scabbing negligible, although at the Tech Center police escorted scab janitors through the lines with no hassle from picketers. Bank of America estimated that GM lost $2 billion in the strike's first four weeks—though the strike jumped off when dealers' lots were full, and customers did not feel the impact. So timing was, shall we say, not well considered.

But members' role was confined to picketing and to volunteering for duties such as snack delivery. Before the strike, officials made no attempt to involve members in a contract campaign. Not a button was distributed in the plants. There was no survey of the membership, no contract action teams, no bargaining bulletins to keep members in the loop. No “practice picketing,” no turn-down of overtime—some plants building popular models worked scads of overtime right up till the bell—no outreach to the public, no open bargaining. Members knew only what they read in the media.

Although union statements referred to GM's $35 billion in profits over the last three years, there was no attempt to rally the public against what could have been this year's poster child for corporate greed. It almost seemed as if UAW officials didn't want to be too rude to the counterparts with whom their usual relationship is “partnership.”

When the taxpayers owned GM after the government bailout, in 2009, the UAW could have taken a lead in demanding a Green New Deal and agitated for the government to convert plants to green production. It raised not a peep in that regard, and now has no plan for the electric vehicle future.

Tiers. The contract maintains all the tiers in the previous contract and perhaps more—at least 10. Lordstown workers may get a consolation prize of an electric battery plant opened in their area—but at a wage of $17 an hour.

One tier is on its way to eventual elimination, though: the top tier.

Although Tier 2 workers (which GM politely calls “in progression”), those hired since 2007, will finally achieve the same wage as Tier 1 at the end of this contract—a positive—they'll still get no pension or retiree health care. Some current temps, now about 7 percent of the workforce, will become permanent in the second tier, but more temps will be hired to replace them.

The process for conversion to permanent status contains loopholes; workers don't trust it. “GM knows how to work around that,” said a four-year worker who identified himself as “a concerned union member.” He said he was voting no because the contract “is not equal for everybody all across the board.”

Saving a plant. He was also unimpressed with the fact that GM says it will build an electric truck at Detroit-Hamtramck, which is now producing an Impala and a Cadillac. Though strikers there were glad enough to see it, they were unanimous that the electric truck had long been planned and was not a product of hard bargaining.

HOW MEMBERS VOTED

Besides Lordstown workers and those who felt they just did not win enough to justify six weeks out, members in what could be called the third, fourth, and fifth tiers voted against the agreement by large margins. They work at four components plants and at after-market parts warehouses, and their wages will top out at $22.50 and $25, respectively, after an eight-year grow-in. That's 70 or 81 percent of other workers' top pay of $32.32. New temps will make $16.67.

Skilled trades workers voted yes in larger percentages than production workers, the opposite of their usual pattern. (In fact, GM skilled trades voted down the 2015 contract but the International put it through anyway.) They got a guarantee of 400 new apprentices and a better system for choosing them, which had been outsourced to a third party.

Jessie Kelly, an apprentice mold maker at the GM Tech Center near Detroit, said that unlike in the past, GM won't be able to cut its promised apprentice numbers when a skilled trades person who'd been bumped into production returns to the tools.

She warned, though, that skilled trades' “biggest problem is that 60 percent of the corporation is going to be impacted when we go to electric engines. What skilled trades got is a blip,” she said. “I wish we made bigger wins for things that would affect the membership as a whole.”

NOW WHAT?

What do the vote results mean for the union moving forward? The best result would be for members to remember what they said, to a person, on the line: that they were striking for equality. And to use the impulse of unionism to organize in their locals to elect leaders who will enforce this contract and fight for a better one.

It's also possible that the result of these six weeks on strike will be more cynicism, that members will draw the conclusion that you can't win much even when you fight.

Jessie Kelly holds out hope that the strike boosted union popularity in general and could help the UAW organize the foreign-owned auto plants, mainly in the South, where organizing drives have failed three times in the last five years. “People have a right to be upset about this contract,” Kelly said, “because it doesn't meet where we were trying to go, it falls completely short. But when we went on strike, people were attracted to that. People saw the union was more than just collecting dues and being fraudulent. That was the reputation in my generation. When they see this is what it's supposed to be, then they get interested.”

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