A month before Detroit's automakers officially begin critical contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers, top labor negotiators with General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV have abruptly retired.
Fiat Chrysler on Tuesday said its North American labor relations chief, Alphons Iacobelli, 55, elected to retire, effective immediately. GM on Tuesday also confirmed to The Detroit News that its top bargainer, Rex Blackwell, 60, quietly retired June 1.
While the handshake across the bargaining table marking the official start of talks is expected in July, internal strategy sessions and informal talks between the companies and the union have been ongoing for months. The four-year contracts expire in mid-September.
Industry experts speculate the unprecedented timing of the retirements of Iacobelli and Blackwell could be a sign of just how difficult the upcoming negotiations are going to be. This is the first contract since GM and Chrysler emerged from post-bankruptcy government restrictions; automakers are reporting record profits; and union leaders have made it clear they want to share in the wealth, after givebacks during the 2008-09 economic downturn. GM and Chrysler workers were prohibited from striking when the current contract was negotiated in 2011, but that restriction — required as a condition of their government bailout — has expired.
Among the issues expected to take center stage: the so-called two-tier wage structure for new and veteran autoworkers and possible wage increases.
Ford Motor Co. said Tuesday it has made no changes in its negotiating team, led by Bill Dirksen.
The UAW declined to comment on the personnel changes.
Labor experts speculated Tuesday that the changes at the top won't necessarily hamper the upcoming contract talks, as the companies and unions have teams of negotiators.
"They have a strong backbench, always," said Kristin Dziczek, Center for Automotive Research director of the Industry & Labor Group. "They have a very large contingent of people who work on labor negotiations — they're very complicated."
Iacobelli, reached by The News, declined to comment on reasons for his unexpected retirement.
Both Iacobelli and Blackwell will be replaced by experienced negotiators. Cathy Clegg, who led GM's negotiations in 2011 with the UAW, will be the automaker's main bargainer again.
This is GM's third change in top negotiators since April. When Jim Glynn, GM global vice president of labor relations, was given more global responsibilities, Blackwell was promoted to the position. Glynn had held the top North America labor post just since 2013, succeeding Clegg.
The Detroit automaker chose to bring Clegg into the role instead of Glynn, who more recently had been meeting with UAW President Dennis Williams and Cindy Estrada, the union's vice president at GM.
Clegg has assumed labor relations in addition to her role heading North America manufacturing for GM, company spokeswoman Katie McBride said. She said Clegg has been involved in labor discussions.
"Based on her experience and her strong union relationship, we're going to stay on track with preparing and progress heading into negotiation," McBride said.
Blackwell, who worked for GM for 36 years, opted to retire June 1, McBride said.
"It's something he had been considering for some time even before the promotion," she said.
Glenn Shagena, who has been a part of labor relations since entering then-Chrysler Corp. in 1985, will succeed Iacobelli. He was most recently head of FCA Mexico human resources, which oversees labor relations.
Dziczek predicts negotiations at FCA US will be particularly tough because CEO Sergio Marchionne, a hands-on executive, likes to be "intimately involved" in union negotiations and strategies.
Marchionne is known as a tough and, at times, controversial negotiator. In the midst of contract talks four years ago, the 62-year-old executive broke off talks with union officials after then-UAW President Bob King failed to meet with him one night to finalize a new contract before the contract expired.
"Under the leadership of (Marchionne), our experienced Employee Relations team will negotiate a collective bargaining agreement aimed at keeping the company competitive while recognizing the contributions of our UAW-represented workforce," the company said.
Fiat Chrysler is expected to have the most challenging negotiations this year given its high percentage of second-tier workers (more than 40 percent), significantly lower profit-sharing and bonuses and some workers who are displeased with alternative work schedules.