UAW authorizes strike; union targets GM first in contract talks
The UAW confirmed Tuesday it would seek to negotiate a contract with General Motors this fall as a template for negotiations with Detroit’s two other automakers. It was thought the union would choose Ford, a company perceived to be worker friendly, so the news is a surprise to some union members and industry observers.
UAW leadership made the decision, spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.
Factory workers have said for months they feel angry and mistreated by GM.
“Mary Barra said from the outset of these talks that we will stand up as we tackle a changing industry. We are ready to stand strong for our future,” UAW President Gary Jones said in a prepared statement released at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
“We are focused. We are prepared, and we are all ready to stand up for our members, our communities and our manufacturing future,” Jones said.
The UAW, which represents nearly 150,000 hourly workers at Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, also said workers at each local of all three companies have voted to authorize a strike: 95.98% 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.
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“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. But it is a key tool in the toolbelt as our bargaining team sits across from the company,” Jones said in a prepared statement. “Ultimately, the company holds that destiny in their hands as they bargain. Clearly the UAW stood up for them in a very dark time, now that they are profitable, it is time for them to stand up for all of us.”
The news comes just days after FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided Jones’ Canton home on Aug. 28.
The raid was part of a nationwide sweep of sites tied to the autoworker union. Agents also raided the California home of Dennis Williams, who preceded Jones as UAW chief; the union’s northern Michigan conference center; a UAW regional office in Missouri, where Jones was based previously; and the home of Williams aide Amy Loasching in Wisconsin.
The multiagency raids were a big step as federal officials escalated their corruption investigation of the union. Nine people have been charged in the long-running investigation. All but one were associated with misuse of money intended for training at the UAW-FCA joint training center.
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The raid casts a dark cloud over ongoing negotiations between the UAW and the Detroit Three.
The current UAW contract with the Detroit Three was hammered out in 2015 without a strike at GM, Ford or FCA.
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 the union 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.
“He should step down during bargaining,” said Kenneth Mefford, a UAW member who works for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles 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 over the automaker’s decision last November to “unallocate” product at four U.S. plants, indefinitely idling them and leaving some 2,800 active U.S. hourly workers in jeopardy.
“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.”
The next step in negotiations likely will be the union designating a “target” company. Sources have told the Free Press that early thinking in the union was to go first with Ford to establish a baseline deal to take to the other companies.
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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,” GM spokesman David Barnas said.
The plants that could be permanently shuttered if GM does not award them new products to build are: Detroit-Hamtramck, scheduled to idle in January; Lordstown Assembly in Ohio; and Warren Transmission and Baltimore Transmission. As part of GM’s restructuring, it also cut about 4,000 white-collar jobs and closed the assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario. The restructuring plan will save GM up to $2.5 billion this year, it 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 allocating some vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Blazer SUV, to Mexico for assembly. 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 it 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
But 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 who retired last year, pleaded not guilty on 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 in a case that has now ensnared GM along with FCA. The schemes involved millions of dollars in contracts for watches, backpacks and jackets.
UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who heads the FCA department for the union, was apparently 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.”
But that scandal, along with GM, FCA and Ford workers being quick to remind the automakers of the sacrifices the rank-and-file made during the Great Recession, has left workers anxious. They say now it’s time for the Detroit Three to show loyalty.
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 faces relocating 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 contract talks after helping GM out in 2008. When asked last month if UAW workers would potentially 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.”
Contact Jamie L. LaReau at 313-222-2149 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter.