Detroit — UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell is approaching contract negotiations with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV as a realist.
The head of the union's Chrysler Department expects negotiations with the automaker this year to be difficult. He knows what he wants, but doesn't expect everything. And while many see collective bargaining from a business standpoint, Jewell is more concerned about the people the contract will impact.
"Obviously, we are a business in a roundabout way," he said in his office overlooking the Detroit River at the UAW's Solidarity House in Detroit. "We're in the business of representing people."
Jewell's office is a testament to his philosophy about collective bargaining and people. It's filled with photos of family and friends, as well as accolades and thank-you messages ranging from President Barack Obama to the UAW presidents under which he has served since entering Flint-based UAW Local 659 in 1976.
From an outsider's perspective, it might seem odd that Jewell, a first-term vice president who rose in the ranks through General Motors, was chosen by UAW President Dennis Williams to lead negotiations with the automaker formerly known as Chrysler Group LLC and CEO Sergio Marchionne, an experienced negotiator.
But Jewell and those around him are confident in his abilities as a straightforward, honest negotiator who doesn't shy away from controversy when needed.
"He is detailed-oriented. He is people-oriented," said Duane Zuckschwerdt, retired UAW Region 1C director, who was Jewell's predecessor for the region. "Going into negotiations, he'll have his ducks in a row. He'll have his agenda, where he wants to be. And I know he's going to face difficult negotiations, but with some of the experience he's gained … he'll do a good job."
"His support doesn't come easy," said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Democrat who Jewell supported throughout his career from county official to congressman. "People don't assume anything when it comes to Norwood Jewell. When he supports somebody it's because he has given it thought."
While the title of vice president may be new to Jewell, the pressures that come with it are nothing new for the nearly 40-year union veteran. Jewell was thrust into the spotlight after leading a two-month strike in 1998 against GM, which sued him and others in response to the strike that reportedly cost the Detroit-based automaker $2 billion.
Jewell, who has a framed copy of the dismissed lawsuit hanging in his office, has been a part of bargaining since becoming active in the union in 1988 as an alternate committeeman. He was on the UAW-GM national negotiating team in 1999 and chair of the bargaining committee at Flint Metal Center for a number of years. UAW President Stephen P. Yokich appointed him to serve as an International representative to the UAW-GM Health and Safety Department in 2000.
"I've been doing this my whole career," said Jewell, who was elected vice president last June. "Just at different levels and different experiences, but it's all the same."
Those experiences, however, have not included Fiat Chrysler, which some expect to be the most contentious negotiations of the three Detroit automakers, due to having the largest amount of entry-level workers, lower profit-sharing checks and changing political landscapes.
The UAW's current four-year contracts with the Detroit automakers expire in September.
Two-tier pay targeted
Jewell knows the issues he faces going up against Marchionne and the CEO's bargaining team. But like most experienced bargainers, he won't discuss specific plans outside of the bargaining rooms.
"We're going to look at whatever they throw across the table and they're going to look at whatever we throw across the table," Jewell said. "And somewhere in between all that is where we'll end up."
Two-tier wages, profit-sharing, pensions and retiree benefits are four things Jewell lists when the negotiations are brought up. He also talks about the union's resounding philosophy of "bridging the gap" for the next four years of negotiations.
The upcoming contract negotiations will be the first since Michigan became a "right-to-work" state. And they come as workers from GM and FCA US have the right to strike for the first time since 2007. Workers are calling for a pay increase, as automakers report record profits in North America.
"We've got a lot of areas we've been biting the bullet on for quite some time that we need to be taking a look at," said Jewell, who says he has met with Marchionne "several times" but would not elaborate on the discussions.
Jewell has spoken out against the tiered pay system on many occasions since it was introduced in 2007. Detroit automakers established separate wages and benefits for new and more veteran employees in order to become more competitive with foreign counterparts.
Industry officials speculate it was easy to implement the two-tier structure, but it will be much more difficult to eliminate — particularly in one round of negotiations.
"The biggest problem is going to be the number of second-tier workers," said Art Schwartz, of Labor Economics Associates and a former general director of labor relations for GM. He said FCA US "has taken advantage of the second tier" by not having a cap to help lower labor costs.
The two-tier wage system has allowed Detroit's Big Three to invest billions into U.S. plants and hire thousands. But those entry-level workers make substantially less than Tier 1, or "legacy," employees who earn about $27 an hour. Tier 2 workers can make a base wage up to $19.28 an hour; that's an increase from the $15.78 they earned in 2011.
The proportion of entry-level workers at FCA US — more than 40 percent — far surpasses that of GM and Ford Motor Co., which the union will likely want to cap to even the playing field.
"Our job is not to advantage one company over the other that does the same work, and make one company more successful because of our agreements that we negotiate," Jewell said.
Voting results from second-tier workers could make ratifying contracts more difficult — particularly at FCA US. Those workers rely on bonuses and profit-sharing checks more than traditional hourly workers. They may not want to lower or see bonuses end in exchange for bridging hourly wages between the two pay levels.
Veteran workers who haven't had a raise in years may see pay boosts as more important than profit-sharing.
Jewell, while adamantly against the two-tier system, believes in profit-sharing and workers taking ownership of their jobs.
"Our whole existence, in my opinion, other than the respect and safety and things like that, is to get as much of a share of the profits from the company as we can for the people that make the company profitable," he said. "To me, that's one of the biggest things we do."