Skilled trades workers with the United Auto Workers don’t have the authority that many believe they have in vetoing contracts with Detroit automakers.

Last week, union leaders extended until Friday a ratification deadline for a tentative agreement with General Motors Co. after 59.5 percent of skilled trades workers voted against it. And while many of the UAW’s more than 23,300 skilled trades workers with the Detroit automakers believe their group has the ability to veto a deal if their reasons are strictly skilled trade-related, they do not.

Union leaders are gathering in Detroit on Friday to discuss the rejection by skilled trades of the four-year contract that’s on the table now. With GM’s approval, the union could decide to amend the skilled trades’ part of the agreement. However, leaders have no obligation to do so, because 55.4 percent of all GM union members voted “yes” on the pact.

“The union has a tough task in accommodating an array of diverse interests, and the precedent suggested that there is this provision that gives them a particular voice on this — but it’s not an absolute voice,” said Fred Feinstein, a former member of the UAW Public Review Board. Feinstein was part of a 2013 decision that followed the appeal of Chrysler Group LLC workers who objected to the union’s decision to ratify the 2011 contract even though a majority of skilled trades workers voted it down.

In 1973 and 2011 — the last two times a majority of skilled trades workers voted against a national agreement but an overall majority of workers supported the deal — the union’s International Executive Board declared the pacts ratified, and appeals by workers failed.

Precedent was set in the early 1970s and reconfirmed in recent years by the UAW Public Review Board — the union’s final appellate authority — that separate groups such as skilled trades do not have veto power; they simply have the right to vote separately to raise concerns, according to documents obtained by The Detroit News.

“They have a right to ‘vote separately,’ ” reads a 1974 decision by the UAW Public Review Board on an appeal filed by workers that argued a 1973 deal with Ford Motor Co. should not have been ratified because a majority of skilled trades workers voted against the pact. “This they did and their totals were recorded separately. But combined, the votes show the contract was ratified by a clear majority. Having attended to the objection of the skilled trades employees, the (International Executive Board) determined that the contract should be declared ratified.”

That ruling was cited in the 2013 decision that the International Executive Board was allowed to push ratification of an agreement through in 2011 even though skilled trades workers at Chrysler voted down the deal.

The decisions state that as long as the International Executive Board follows a procedure to determine and legitimize reasons for the “no” votes, it has the power to declare a strike, work without a contract while negotiating or “any other strategy it deems appropriate” — essentially giving the board absolute power as long as it’s acting in the best interest of the union.

“The IEB always has the final authority under (the UAW constitution) to determine whether a contract should be declared ratified after it has been approved by a majority of the members participating in the ratification process,” reads the 2013 decision by the Public Review Board.

‘One of history’

The UAW this week declined to comment on the skilled trades’ veto power as well as the ratification process, citing ongoing talks with GM. But officials familiar with the decision confirmed that the skilled trades workers lack veto power.

The confusion of separate voting and ratification stems from Article 19, Section 3 of the union’s constitution that states: “Upon application to and approval of the International Executive Board, a ratification procedure may be adopted wherein apprenticeble skilled trades and related worker, production workers, office workers, engineers and technicians would vote separately on contractual matters common to all and, in the same vote on those matters which relate exclusively to their group.”

That phrasing is open to interpretation. It has been at the center of several union members’ appeals to the Public Review Board as well as a decision by a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan judge in 1974 that supported the Public Review Board’s decision on the International Executive Board’s constitutional authority.

Ronald Reosti, the labor attorney who handled the appeal to the Public Review Board in 1970s, said “the argument was pretty much one of history.” He said there were a couple of people on the UAW Public Review Board who were “sympathetic” to concerns of skilled trades workers. But the board, as it typically does, affirmed the international union’s decision that leaders followed constitutional process and were allowed to ratify the agreement.

“In a sense, it was a fun case for me,” he said. “I thought we had constructed a pretty good argument.”

The Public Review Board was established in 1957 as the “final appellate authority” for members’ grievances and complaints, including decisions of the International Executive Board. The union-funded board is currently composed of four members, all of whom are scholars of law, labor relation and/or employment.

The 14-member International Executive Board includes five officers — the president, secretary-treasurer and three vice presidents — and nine regional directors. Its job is to carry out the programs and policies approved by UAW members and run day-to-day operations of the international union.

Skilled workers’ concerns

John Ilgenfritz, a skilled trades worker at GM’s Wentzville Assembly Plant in Missouri, says if the UAW ratifies the GM agreement despite rejection by skilled trades workers, it shows their votes didn’t matter. “It makes everybody feel like their opinion means nothing,” said the 55-year-old. “Maybe the constitution does need to be re-written.”

For the skilled trades to truly have a veto power, a separate vote would likely have to take place and an amendment to the constitution would have to be made. Currently, under the UAW constitution, the group casts one ballot for the overall agreement and its part — leaving voting up to the union’s interpretation.

Many skilled trades workers at GM are concerned about re-classifications that could require them to do multiple jobs; that they may lose seniority or shift preferences; that work may be outsourced; and that no buyout incentives were offered. Others believe not enough apprentices are promised, even though more than half of the 8,500 workers are eligible to retire.

UAW Local 12 member George Windau, lead appellant on the 2011 appeal, said he is “hoping and praying” the UAW doesn’t ratify the GM deal, saying skilled trades as a whole are “being rolled over mercilessly.”

“We have to defend ourselves,” said Windau, 64, a nearly 40-year union veteran who works at the Toledo Assembly Complex. “I’m an older gentleman, but I hope that younger people will step up and take the banner and carry it forward to fight for the right of the skilled trades. And make sure our voice is not only heard but heeded.”

The 2011 appeal on behalf of more than 200 Chrysler skilled trades members was not about the group’s ability to veto a deal like the 1970s appeals were. Instead, they argued UAW leaders did not follow the union’s steps to hear concerns, which deprived the skilled trades members a separate vote and voice.

“What we were asking at the time of the appeal was that they go back and have meetings with the trades people, and then go back to the company and make some of the changes based on those meetings,” said Martha Grevatt, a 28-year union veteran who was among the workers in that appeal.

Former UAW General Counsel Michael Nicholson, who was instrumental in the 2011 appeal process, declined to comment when reached by The Detroit News.

Ellis Boal, a labor attorney who handled the appeal to the UAW Public Review Board, said he felt the Chrysler workers had a good case. But the Public Review Board, as it has many times, affirmed the executive board’s decision.

Alex Wassell, a UAW member since 1972 who was part of the appeal, said: “I felt that when the skilled trades clearly voted the agreement down and it was rubber-stamp ratified by the International Executive Board, I thought it was wrong.”

Grevatt, Windau and others believe it’s because of their appeal four years ago that the union’s GM Department has taken more than a week to review the skilled trades’ issues. That contrasts with what happened four years ago when then-UAW President Bob King held a conference call with local leaders, and the International Executive Board pushed the deal through a day after voting ended.

“We felt that the appeal no matter how it turned out, whether we won or whether we lost, we felt it was momentous and it was going to be significant,” Windau said.

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Detroit News Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.

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