Business Maverick

By Making Busy Union Workers Richer, GM Has Shot at Sealing Deal

By Bloomberg 23 October 2019

A tentative agreement between General Motors Co. and the United Auto Workers union to end a more than five-week strike hinges on ratification by a handful of large branches..

That plant’s 4,800 workers and two other big factories — another truck plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with 4,500 staff and an Arlington, Texas facility with more than 5,000 — have yet to weigh in ahead of a Friday deadline. It may come down to ‘yes’ votes at these busy GM factories edging out ‘no’ votes from members at the carmaker’s idled plants and others that build smaller vehicles that are less secure.

Those three biggest plants make out well under the deal, which provides them with iron-clad job security over the four-year contract and beyond. The automaker is rolling out new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups from Flint and Fort Wayne, where it is adding staff. In Arlington, GM has invested $1.4 billion since 2015 to build next-generation Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs.

Workers at those three factories — which account for 30% of the UAW’s entire voting membership at GM — may be content with promised concessions such as 3% raises in two years, 4% lump sums for the other two years and $11,000 ratification bonuses. Those opposed are unswayed by those pay bumps, and likely angered that GM is closing three plants at a time of record profits.

“It’s more likely to pass than not,” said Harley Shaiken, professor of labor relations at the University of California at Berkeley. “You have workers in their fifth week on the picket line and want to get back. You have a big signing bonus, health care benefits intact and a way to harmonize pay for workers.”

Spring Hill Scare

The carmaker is eager to end the strike, which began Sept. 16 and has cost it an estimated $2 billion. GM got a scare when workers at one of its largest plants, a former Saturn factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee that makes SUVs, turned down the tentative labor agreement in a tight vote on Monday. Spring Hill’s 3,300 staff nixed the deal by a mere seven votes, which includes 142 employees who transferred — mostly unhappily — from a now-idled GM factory in Lordstown, Ohio.

Staff at GM plants with plenty of overtime have little fear of losing their jobs, said Rich LeTourneau, chairman of Local 2209, which represents Fort Wayne’s 4,500 workers. “I think it’ll pass based on the money,” LeTourneau said in an interview. “People will look at this and say, how does it help me and how does it hurt me? They won’t go back out on strike for a little more money.”

Several smaller branches have overwhelmingly approved the agreement, including 1,400 workers at a transmission plant in Toledo, 555 at a plant in Saginaw, Michigan, and 53 at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren, Michigan.

Another big voting block that could help get the deal over the line are GM’s 16,000 “in progression” employees hired at $18 an hour. Under the existing 2015 labor agreement, it would take eight years for them to reach the top wage of about $30. But the new deal with GM would allow them to start earning the top wage of $32.32 an hour in four years or less, according to the union.

Correcting a ‘Mistake’

Those “in progression” workers don’t like making half the pay of veteran employees next to them on the assembly line, said Karlton Byas, a health and safety trainer at GM’s car plant that sits on the border between Detroit and the town of Hamtramck, nicknamed D-Ham. He said he will vote in favour of the deal because he gets a raise and the plant has a new product coming in.

“That was a mistake eight years ago and we’ve corrected it,” Byas said while grilling hot dogs on a picket line Monday. “To me that was major. And personally, for this plant, that’s major.“

Like Lordstown, the D-Ham plant has been “unallocated” by GM — meaning no new product is scheduled once current production ends in January. But unlike the Ohio factory, the Detroit area plant gets a lifeline in the form of a pledge from GM to build its next generation of electric trucks and SUVs there under the new contract. That helped grab Byas’ vote and that of others, he said.

The investment in D-Ham is part of $7.7 billion GM is committing to its U.S. facilities, along with other sweeteners for UAW members such as keeping generous health-care benefits intact and offering early retirement packages to senior workers.

Another striker on the picket line, Marcellous Patterson, said he’s going to vote against the contract because he wants a better buyout package than the $60,000 GM is offering. But the 62-year-old thinks the agreement will be ratified because of support from younger workers. “It’ll pass because there are more young people, and young people want to start taking care of their families.”

To contact the reporters on this story:
David Welch in Southfield at [email protected];
Gabrielle Coppola in New York at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story:

 

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