UAW gears up for tough fight with Detroit Three
Detroit — The United Auto Workers are gearing up for a fight in this year's national contract talks.
UAW President Gary Jones issued stern warnings Wednesday to the Detroit Three at the close of this year's Special Bargaining Convention, promising to use "every last ounce" of the union's leverage to save idled plants and improve wages and future job security for UAW members.
The confrontational tone is customary, even if this year's circumstances are not for the union representing workers at General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. As technology continues to reshape the automotive industry, GM is in the middle of a months-long process of idling four U.S. plants and Ford is embarking on its own restructuring.
As GM and Ford pivot away from slow-selling sedans, GM already stopped production at Lordstown Assembly in Northeast Ohio earlier this month. The company will indefinitely idle Warren Transmission, Baltimore Operations and Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly in the coming months. At the same time, Ford is shrinking the workforce at Flat Rock Assembly and Louisville Assembly. Meantime, Fiat Chrysler is finalizing plans to build a new plant in Detroit and add thousands of factory jobs in Michigan.
And while the union promises to fight for its members, using a "We Are One" unifying slogan at the convention here this week, its leaders say they are looking to reform the organization amid a continuing criminal federal investigation into a wide-ranging labor conspiracy. To make their point, union officials distributed a sheet of bullet points called "The UAW's Clean Slate."
Among the initiatives are more stringent oversight of travel and credit cards, a "revamp" of the Fiat Chrysler National Training Center at the center of the federal investigation, a ban on union officials soliciting contributions from employers or vendors to their separate charities, and a ban on gifts to union leaders and negotiators.
Jones left the stage after delivering his short statement on bargaining and reform, and he did not take questions. His spokesperson, Brian Rothenberg, said Jones wants to be a "reform president." But the 10-point reform issued Wednesday largely reprises those presented by previous UAW President Dennis Williams in 2017.
As the union looks to reform, it faces an uphill battle at the bargaining table. The long period of growth in the automotive industry that has contributed to four years of strong profits since the last contracts is showing signs of slowing. And Fiat Chrysler, Ford and GM are looking to invest more heavily in expensive electrification, autonomy and mobility ventures.
It's likely the UAW's usual push for higher pay — especially increases in base wage rates — will be met with some pushback as the automakers look to pull back on spending and restrain the growth of fixed costs. But Jones and his fellow leaders say they're ready to fight.
"We’re anticipating and planning, as we should do, for any economic upsets that could face us," Rory Gamble, UAW vice president and director of the Ford department, told delegates. "However, we are holding (Ford) to nine years of good economic times for our members."
Jones and UAW Vice President Terry Dittes, director of the GM department, aimed most of the firepower at GM: "There will be no more quiet closing of plants. No more shipping jobs to Mexico and abroad without a sound," Jones said. "They are on notice."
In addition to repeated threats to strike, bolstered by an increase in strike pay, the UAW doesn't appear willing to pull punches in the bargaining agenda outlined at this week's convention. Top priorities include wage increases, plant investments and a revision to the profit-sharing formula that would provide payouts to UAW members when the automakers make distributions to shareholders.
"They have to aim high," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. "That should be the opening position in any negotiation, and that's what the UAW is providing in the kickoff to bargaining."
The union, which will have to reckon this summer with the automakers over growing healthcare costs, is also proposing new language for the contract that would address the opioid epidemic and addiction in the workplace.
And with the rise of such new technologies as electric vehicles that all three Detroit automakers say will underpin their future, the UAW is asking for improvements in workforce training, new jobs related to new technologies, and advance notice from the companies on new technology investments.
"As the auto companies change the way they do business, so will we," Jones told the press. "We are going to this bargaining session using every tool we have."