UAW, automakers look to ‘bridge the gap’

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

“Bridging the gap” is the United Auto Workers’ resounding philosophy for collective bargaining issues with the Detroit automakers and other organizations for the next four years.

It’s a precise wording that could be one of the first signs that contract negotiations between the union and companies will be more beneficial for all parties than they historically have.

“There is a realism to it,” said senior attorney Clifford Hammond of Detroit labor and employment law firm Nemeth Law P.C. “I think there’s a lot to say about the words. They chose them for a reason.”

For union leaders and members, it’s a strategy that is meant to benefit all: high-seniority workers who have lacked a pay raise for a decade; newer workers who are paid less and have fewer benefits; and temporary and contingent workers who aren’t directly employed by companies.

“What I’ve said all along is bridging the gap is not just about wages at the Big Three or wages with UAW members, it’s about society as a whole,” UAW President Dennis Williams said Wednesday following a panel with labor leaders at Wayne State University’s campus in Detroit.

Williams, during the panel, said the American labor movement is at a crossroads, and it’s time for everyone to come to the bargaining table and move the country in a new direction.

“We’ve got to find a way to bring students together, working men and women together, white-collar, blue-collar together, and say, ‘There’s something wrong with America,’ ” he said. “I think there’s a great opportunity here.”

Williams’ comments echoed those from the the union’s Special Bargaining Convention last month in Detroit, where Williams and union leaders used “bridging the gap” throughout the convention.

Some delegates last month called for stronger, more precise wording such as “eliminating” the gap — specifically between auto workers currently working under a tiered system that can pay entry-level employees $10 less than veteran, or legacy, employees — but the push fell short.

The terminology is actually nothing new to General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

Since before the economic downturn of 2008-09 that led GM and then-Chrysler into government-backed bankruptcies, Detroit automakers were using the term “close” or “closing” the gap to refer to their labor costs compared to foreign automakers with operations in the U.S. Detroit automakers are still seeking to bridge that gap.

Hammond said it’s not unusual for bargaining groups to use words that are consistent with what’s been said at previous rounds of negotiations.

“Bridging the gap,” he said, could be beneficial language for the automakers as well as Williams, who must appease rank-and-file workers and help keep labor costs for domestic automakers competitive with their non-union, foreign counterparts.

“It’s a way to try and get everybody at the table started in the right direction,” Hammond said. “It’s a pragmatic approach. It tries to hit every single angle.”

The auto industry is on a roll and the UAW made sacrifices during the economic downturn that they will be hoping to be awarded for, but the automakers have to remain competitive and be ready for a recession or dip in sales. One or two bad years of sales during a short-sighted contract that doesn’t allow for flexibility could send the automakers back to Washington, D.C., with their hands out.

The major “bridging” is expected to be around the two-tier wage system for the Detroit automakers and union workers. Analysts have speculated that it will be difficult to eliminate the two-tier structure in one round of bargaining. But bridging could be manageable.

“It’s certainly more realistic than trying to eliminate it,” said Arthur Schwartz, a professor of labor relations at Wayne State University and a former general director of labor relations for GM, during a recent interview. “Trying to eliminate it is going to cost them a lot of jobs, and they know that. Trying to close it, I think the automakers can live with that, depending on how much.”

Current contracts between the Detroit automakers and UAW expire in September.