Temps made permanent at GM and Ford plants, but UAW wants more

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Flint — Lucy and Keith Shinabarger are planning to take their first family vacation in a long time. 

The Flint couple and their sons Jerald, 19, Blake, 6, can make plans now that Lucy has been boosted to full-time permanent status after more than three years working the line at General Motors Co.'s Flint Assembly plant. The transition gives her actual paid vacation days and a sense of security that when she comes back from vacation there will be a job waiting for her.

Blake Shinabarger, 6, with mother Lucy Shinabarger, dad Keith Shinabarger and brother Jerald Shinabarger at their home in Flint. Lucy became a full-time permanent worker at GM Flint Assembly last week.

"We are actually looking at a cruise," Keith said, noting that they've narrowed down the list to Alaska or the Bahamas — or perhaps a Disney Cruise to surprise Blake.

Securing a path to permanent employment for temporary employees was a main goal for the United Auto Workers during 2019 negotiations with the Detroit Three. It was one of the issues that led to a 40-day national strike by the UAW against GM. By the end of negotiations, the UAW was able to secure that pathway.

Last week, more than 1,500 temporary employees at GM and Ford Motor Co. with three or more years experience were converted to full-time status, giving them wage boosts, better health-care benefits and most importantly, job security.

"You know you are going in there every day," Lucy said.

At Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, temporary employees also have a pathway to full-time status and top wages. The UAW has said that 3,800 Fiat Chrysler temporary employees should become full-time this year. The conversions are based on product commitments made before and during the national contract negotiations, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said. Fiat Chrysler's contract with the union doesn't set conversion dates like the agreements at Ford and GM.

Fiat Chrysler will reclassify temporary workers at its new Detroit assembly plant comes online later this year, a company spokesperson said. The company has not said how many.

Floating workforces

Temporary employees at all three automakers are used as floating workforces to fill in for the full-time workers on sick days or vacations. At the time of the negotiations last fall, temporary employees represented 7% of all UAW-GM hourly employees and 6% of UAW-Ford workers. Fiat Chrysler's temporary employees represented 13% of the hourly workforce, not including skilled trades.

Unions aren't keen on the use of temps because it creates a division in the workforce in which temporary employees earn less, said Marick Masters, who is on the business faculty at Wayne State University. 

Masters believes the union achieved a "significant accomplishment" for temporary workers during negotiations, but said if absenteeism isn't addressed, a floating workforce always will be necessary.

"The company likes to have as much flexibility in terms of hiring temp workers to handle unexpected absenteeism, turnover and just fluctuations in productivity," Masters said. He believes it will be a delicate balancing act between what the union and the company want.

For GM, transitioning the temps will "help create more engaged and motivated teams in our plants, which is foundational to improving job satisfaction, health and safety, and the quality of our products for our customers," GM spokesman David Barnas said in a statement to The Detroit News.

Issues at Fort Wayne

GM converted more than 900 temporary employees across 30 facilities last week, but the UAW is still pushing the automaker to reclassify other workers the union says should have been made full-time. GM expects there will be more regular full-time employment opportunities in coming months.

"We remain in conversations with General Motors at several locations where we believe additional members should be moved to seniority status under the agreement," UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said in a statement. "This is a good start to a defined path for UAW members, but the UAW will be vigilant to make sure that all hardworking temporary employees see their advancement to seniority status.”

GM's Fort Wayne Assembly truck plant in northeast Indiana is one location where the UAW believes more temporary employees should have been made permanent. UAW Local 2209, representing workers at the plant, had 148 temporary employees converted to permanent status but the union believes there should have been more.

The union local and GM could not reach an agreement for 240 temp jobs at the Fort Wayne plant. With no agreement between the UAW and GM in place before their contract expired Monday, those 240 temporary employees were laid off.

"We were willing to retain approximately 240 additional temporaries as part-time employees but unfortunately we could not reach an agreement with the UAW," Barnas said.

In a Local 2209 Bargaining Committee Report, shop chairman Rich LeTourneau wrote: "It will remain our position, if this company needs you to run, then they need to hire you."

Elation at Flint

The mood is much different for 255 temporary employees at GM's truck plant in Flint. They were happily surprised last week when they learned they would become permanent. The Flint Assembly workers who received that news at a Jan. 5 union meeting were classified as part-time temporary employees, and according to the union contract wouldn't technically be eligible for permanent employment until January 2021.

All of the workers at the meeting thought they were actually just going to be made full-time temps. But then Flint Local 598 Shop Chairman Eric Welter said: "You’re seniority employees as of tomorrow."

He said the room "just erupted and everyone went crazy. It was quite a special, emotional event."

Unlike Fort Wayne's union local, the one at Flint was able to reach an agreement with GM outside of the UAW's national agreement to get its temporary members hired permanently.

The announcement left Flint Assembly worker Brian Kiesling elated. Kiesling, of Flushing, had worked almost four years as a temp, dealing with struggles of not knowing how many hours he would have from one week to the next. The fluctuating paycheck for years prevented Kiesling and other temps from making major purchases or financing anything.

"A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is," Kiesling said.

Brian Kiesling plans to put a new roof on his house now that he is a full-time employee at GM Flint Assembly plant. He worked for more than three years as a temp and last week had his status changed.

At GM plants, the transition for temporary employees means that an employee getting $17.53-$19.28 per hour would get bumped up to $21, according to the UAW/GM agreement. They got an improved medical plan cost-share and access to dental and vision coverage. The company will now contribute to their 401(k) plan, and they get life insurance and disability coverage.

The improved health care plan is what Kiesling most needed. Now 43, he worries about coming health problems. He's also relieved to have more job security. As a temp, he worried about missing any days and losing his job.

"You could have to start all over again," he said. "It’s so disheartening something that like that could happen."

With a newfound sense of security, Kiesling plans to put a new roof on his single-story ranch and he has other plans: "I would like to someday own one of our trucks."

Chantese Wortham of Flint, who worked the line at Flint Assembly for more than three years as a temp, was often hesitant to sign up her four children for extracurricular activities because she was unsure she would have the money to afford them because her hours varied week to week. That will change now that she has a guaranteed full-time permanent job.

Chantese Wortham recently became a full-time employee at General Motors Co. Flint Assembly plant after working more than three years as a temp. The United Auto Workers went on strike against GM last year in part to get temps a path to permanent employment. Chantese's husband, DaVonté Wortham, and children, DaVonté II,9,  CayDence, 7, and Kassidy, 5, joined her on the picket line in the fall of 2019. She's looking forward to getting her children in gymnastics and karate classes now that she works full time.

"I can put them in gymnastics or karate," she said. "We are planning a vacation. We are going to take them to Disney World next year."

Temps feel 'blessed'

Ford Motor Co. employee Dvaughn Fisher recently became a full-time employee at the Dearborn Truck plant. Fisher is thinking about getting braces with his new health insurance.

Ford converted 592 temporary employees to permanent status last week. Most will see their wages increase to $18.41 per hour immediately. Temps at Ford start out at $15.78. They will also see their health coverage improve and have more job security.

Ford Dearborn Truck employee Dvaughn Fisher of Monroe is now looking at getting braces for himself with his new dental insurance, but he's mostly excited to get off the "roller-coaster ride" of job uncertainty.

"It was a blessing. It means a lot for me," he said. "I'm going to save my money and the use the rest if I need it."

Temporary workers are grateful to the union and its members for fighting for them.

"The majority of us temps have a lot of faith in the union. Our union always takes care of us temps," said Lucy Shinaberger, the Flint worker who's planning the cruise vacation.

The Shinabargers are an auto-plant family. Keith has worked at Flint Assembly for 25 years. He leads the launch team for the new heavy-duty trucks there. Keith's dad worked for GM, and Lucy's dad did, too.

Lucy followed their paths in 2016 when she hired in as a temporary employee at Flint. From the start, the union and GM told her they could not promise she would become full-time. She stuck with it, hopeful it would work out.

Now, in addition to vacation planning, Keith and Lucy are contemplating taking care of the house projects at their cozy colonial that they've put off.

"We have been wanting to fix up the house," she said, "but do you dare spend that money?"

She will now.


Twitter: @bykaleahall