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Bridging pay gaps centerpiece of proposed UAW strategy

Michael Wayland, Melissa Burden and Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Equal pay for equal work was the resounding message from United Auto Workers delegates on Tuesday during the first day of Special Bargaining Convention in Detroit.

Many union delegates voiced their support for bridging different pay levels for workers doing the same job. Some called for elimination of a two-tier wage structure at Detroit automakers that can pay veteran auto workers $10 or more per hour than entry-level workers receive.

The elimination of the tier structure is a step further than the union's proposed resolution for collective bargaining this year with the Detroit automakers and other organizations, which calls for "bridging the gaps" between its own workers and others.

"The only demand we should put on the table is no more tiers," said Scott Houldieson, a UAW vice president with Local 551 at Ford Motor Co.'s Chicago Assembly Plant.

Houldieson, wearing a red long-sleeved shirt that said "No More Tiers!," said the union needs to "aggressively attack the two-tier wage system" in this round of contract negotiations.

Delegates on Wednesday will have the opportunity to propose amendments to the resolution before a vote to adopt it as the foundation for the union's common collective bargaining strategy for the next four years.

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.

UAW Local 7 delegate Tielece Perry, a legacy worker at Fiat Chrysler Automotive's Jefferson North Assembly in Detroit, said it's unjust that second-tier employees at her facility can't even afford to buy the vehicles they build.

"Equal pay for equal work," she said. "That time is now."

The Detroit Three and the UAW agreed to the two-tier wage structure in 2007. Two-tier workers start at just less than $16 an hour and ultimately can earn more than $19 an hour. Those workers also have different and less rich benefits than legacy, or tier one workers.

In the proposed resolution, "bringing the gap" was prominently mentioned in three of the seven "key bargaining issues" that included bridging gaps for senior workers, many of whom haven't received a pay increase in a decade; newer workers; and temporary and contingent workers. UAW President Dennis Williams stressed "bridging the gap" refers to more than just the two-tier work system for auto workers.

"When we talk about bridging the gap, the way I view it is we are setting the stage to take on the CEOs and multimillionaires of this country," Williams said during the convention. "Bridge the gap between the workers and the CEOs, not just the workers on the floor."

Other key issues in the proposed resolution include restoring outsourced jobs; protecting health care and retirement security for active workers and retirees; and protecting bargaining rights.

'Everybody gets something'

UAW Local 31 delegate Herb Taylor, who also chairman of the UAW chaplaincy program, said it's "important everybody gets something" out of this year's talks: "The retirees, the two-tier, the one-tier and the trade workers," he said.

About 900 delegates representing the UAW's roughly 400,000 members, including 150,000 in Michigan, are attending the convention. They represent more than 1,500 employers in auto, aerospace, agricultural implement, public service, health care, higher education and other sectors.

Besides the Detroit automakers, high-profile UAW contract negotiations this year include John Deere and the state of Michigan.

At least one delegate brought up striking as a way to force the hand of automakers to eliminate the two-tier wage structure.

Williams has said striking is not something the union looks to do when entering negotiations with any company, but it has to be prepared for the worst.

Dues hike boosts strike fund

In June, UAW members approved the first dues increase since 1967 — a 25 percent hike — to replenish the strike fund that had fallen to about $600 million.

Union leaders said they needed a healthy strike fund so companies would take seriously the threat of a work stoppage.

UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel reported the dues increase added $3 million to the strike fund in December and the UAW is on its way to adding $45 million to the fund.

The 2015 contract talks mark the first since 2007 in which workers at GM and Chrysler have the right to strike; the UAW gave up that right for the 2011 talks as a condition of the government bailouts of GM and Chrysler.

Power of bargaining

This year's convention theme is "The Power of Collective Bargaining Lifts Us All." Williams, numerous times during a speech, touted that the union's success "lifts all others in this economy."

"The stakes are high, the pressures are real and we know that as we succeed, so do our families succeed, American working men and work succeed," he said. "Therefore our communities succeed and our economy succeed."

Guest speakers Tuesday including NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks and U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez touted the union as a leader for the rights of labor relations in the U.S.

Brooks praised the UAW for its work over the years, and said the union and the NAACP should "speak as two movements, one voice."

His speech, which touched on a lowered national unemployment rate and efforts to raise the minimum wage, stressed that wage inequality was stifling further growth.

"If we want to call this recovery complete, we need to make sure every American who works hard … can share in this prosperity," he said.

He also praised the power of collective bargaining and urged UAW workers to "make sure you have a voice."

mwayland@detroitnews.com