Sometimes-troublesome UAW talks end with big gains

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

The 2015 contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers and Detroit’s three automakers revealed underlying frustrations with much of the union membership, but ultimately left workers with more money and job security through at least the next four years.

The talks wrapped up late Friday as workers at Ford Motor Co. narrowly approved their four-year pact by a 51.4 percent margin. The deal’s fate was uncertain until the final ballots were counted, and followed sometimes-difficult ratification votes at the other two automakers.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles workers rejected their first contract offer before approving a richer second offer. And although the overall majority of workers at General Motors Co. favored the deal, skilled trades workers opposed it and caused a week-long delay before union leaders declared it ratified on Friday.

“It’s difficult to negotiate in good times,” said Art Wheaton, a labor expert at Cornell University. “Everybody had high expectations and they thought this was their chance. But you have to walk away from the contract having some sense of sustainability, that you can keep it up in the long term.”

The contracts offer just that opportunity for both sides. Workers received raises across the board and have a path to the end of a divisive two-tier wage system. The automakers were able to keep their labor costs competitive with other companies and revealed product plans that will lead to billions in investment and tens of thousands of jobs created or kept in the United States.

“Overall both sides did a fair job,” Wheaton said. “Management from all three companies gave something at the table, yet they still managed to reduce costs.”

Over the term of the contract, GM’s labor cost per vehicle actually is slated to decline slightly to $2,350 in 2019, from $2,374 in 2014, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Ford and Fiat Chrysler are both expected to see jumps in their labor cost per vehicle, CAR said.

Throughout the talks, workers took to Facebook and Twitter to voice their displeasure, organized peaceful protests and shared information that wasn’t always grounded in facts. Many workers at all three companies wanted a quicker progression to top wages, more money for retirees and a reversal of concessions they gave up during the recession when the automakers were struggling to survive.

Early in the talks, members complained the union wasn’t doing a good enough job of answering questions or providing updates. The social media issue was such a problem that the UAW hired an outside firm to help spread its message on Facebook and Twitter after the first contract failed at Fiat Chrysler.

But workers set up their own Facebook pages like “Show Your No Vote,” where they posted pictures of their “no” ballots. And minutes after the Ford deal was ratified late Friday, dissident workers took to the international union’s official Facebook page to call for a recount and accuse the union of ballot stuffing

“There’s still a learning curve for negotiating in the age of social media,” Wheaton said.

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