UAW convention in Detroit will set stage for bargaining

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
UAW president Gary Jones

Detroit — The United Auto Workers on Monday will start preparing for collective bargaining later this year with Detroit's three automakers at a Special Convention here attended by international leaders and local delegates.

Elected delegates will deliberate and vote on bargaining resolutions, setting the union's agenda before contract talks with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV begin this summer. The union will also elect bargaining committees for each of the three automakers.

This year's Special Convention comes against the backdrop of job cuts and plant idlings for GM at the same time Fiat Chrysler is planning to invest $4.5 billion to build a new assembly plant and add production at five Michigan facilities, creating 6,500 jobs. And Ford is in the midst of a restructuring effort expected to trim operating costs and salaried jobs, change the company's product development process and shake up the global footprint.

Also looming over the talks and the union's leadership: an ongoing criminal federal investigation into a wide-ranging labor conspiracy that has resulted in seven convictions. It threatens to distract from the union's fight for base wage increases, better health care and product allocations at endangered plants.

"These are a critical set of talks coming up in the auto industry," said Harley Shaiken, a professor specializing in labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley. "The companies are very profitable but there are major challenges ahead in terms of where the industry is going. Job security will be a central issue."

GM, Ford and FCA have all posted hefty profits in the four years since the last UAW contract was signed, and the union's members will likely want a bigger piece of that success. But as the industry's extended period of growth finally begins to slow and automakers pivot toward expensive electrification, mobility and autonomy efforts, the companies and the union may need to reconcile with preemptive belt-tightening.

High on the UAW's list of priorities is also likely to be negotiating a future for GM's four U.S. assembly plants slated for "unallocation," a word GM is using to indicate it will stop building at Detroit Hamtramck Assembly, Warren Transmission, Baltimore Operations and Lordstown Assembly in Northeast Ohio with nothing to immediately replace the products made there.

"These are still really good times and these are still profitable companies, so by bringing job security up on the list wage expectations might temper," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. Both the union and the companies will have to be "thinking about what to do when this all starts to slow down."

The union already has sued GM over its actions, accusing the automaker of deliberately avoiding the words "idle" or "close," which are explicitly outlined in the 2015 UAW-GM national agreement. It's possible the UAW will fight to include "unallocate" in the next contract.

GM's actions are starkly different than that of Fiat Chrysler, which is finalizing plans to build a new assembly plant in Detroit. FCA's major investment there and in five other Michigan facilities could prove an advantage to UAW bargainers: they're evidence that growing high-wage manufacturing in the U.S. is still possible in the current environment.

Also hanging over the bargaining talks this year is an unresolved renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. UAW President Gary Jones was wary of the "new" NAFTA, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), after Trade Ambassador Robert Lighthizer visited Detroit last week.

"While some progress has been made, it is clear from current auto company investments abroad, that more work needs to be done to make this agreement enforceable and meaningful to our members and their job security," Jones said in a statement. "We urge the Administration and Congress to finally create a trade agreement that provides working Americans the job security future they deserve."

Twitter: @NoraNaughton