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Potential UAW janitor strike could raise pressure in GM auto talks

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

The United Auto Workers is signaling just how serious it is about a Saturday night deadline for all the workers it represents, by potentially ordering janitorial workers to strike and thereby pressure General Motors Co. to make a deal.

An extended agreement between Aramark Corp., a janitorial services provider, and the UAW will end at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14, the same time and date the UAW agreement with the Detroit Three expires. If the hundreds of Aramark workers at five GM facilities were to go out on strike, GM auto workers may refuse to cross a picket line to go to work, experts say, which could put more pressure on GM to make a deal that the workers want.

"Just the janitors could shut down the plants. Workers won’t cross the picket line. It gets more complicated, puts more chips on the table, and creates additional pressure to make a deal," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, who studies labor issues.

The Flint Assembly Plant, which builds heavy-duty pickups, is among five GM plants where UAW-represented Aramark custodial workers are employed.

UAW Vice President Terry Dittes, head of the union's GM department, recently sent a letter to Oliver Zeidler, senior director of labor relations at Philadelphia-based Aramark, stating that the union will end an extension agreement it has with the company. The Aramark contract with the UAW was up more than a year ago and has been on extended status since then.

The move to terminate an extended agreement with Aramark is no coincidence, experts believe.

"It does seem targeted to bring all of these issues to a head at the same time," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. 

Aramark handles janitorial services for Flint Metal Center, Flint Engine Operations, Flint Assembly, Warren Tech Center and the metal center in Parma, Ohio. Flint Assembly builds the profit-rich Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra heavy-duty trucks. 

"The UAW is synchronizing its workforce so that should a strike be necessary that they would have the maximum effect," said Marick Masters, business professor and former director of labor studies at Wayne State University. "They are trying to say, 'Wherever we have the leverage to call people out, we are going to try to do that ... we are going to make this crippling.'"

Aramark workers perform maintenance on some machines in addition to more routine housekeeping work such as cleaning bathrooms and handling trash. GM said it has contingency plans in place for any potential disruptions.

An Aramark spokesman, David Freireich, wasn't able to discuss specifics of the negotiations.

"We respect the rights of our employees and the collective bargaining process, and we continue to bargain in good faith and hope to reach an agreement that works for everyone," he said in an emailed statement to The Detroit News. "If needed, we have contingency plans in place."

The letter to Aramark comes as negotiations between the UAW and GM, the automaker the union chose to negotiate with first, progress slowly, according to another letter Dittes sent last week to UAW local presidents and chairpersons

"We remain committed to reaching an agreement that will provide our membership with a fair share of the enormous profits earned by the company," he wrote. Dittes specifically mentioned improved wages, benefits, pensions, profit sharing and cost-of-living adjustments. 

Experts have said there's a high potential for a strike by GM workers because of how contentious these talks are. Workers are frustrated because of GM's move to potentially idle four U.S. plants, two of them in southeast Michigan.

The letter to Aramark shows that not only are the autoworkers prepared to strike, so are the members servicing the plant.

“It’s not coincidental," Shaiken said. "It means something. The UAW knows this is raising the ante."

The Labor Management Relations Act, better known as the Taft-Hartley, prohibits secondary boycotts in which workers on strike extend their protest to suppliers or other companies not engaged in labor talks. Shaiken said the janitors, however, would be engaged in their own negotiations.

“This is their own intensive issues that they’re pursuing with good-faith bargaining with several extensions,” he said. “It wouldn’t be in support of (the auto workers’) issues. That alone could close auto plants. It puts us in uncharted territory. Two contracts make the settlement pretty critical, and they both have to settle to ensure a smooth operation.”

Twitter: @bykaleahall

Breana Noble, staff writer, contributed.