UAW workers picket in Detroit over FCA contract

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News
Protestors outside UAW Solidarity House in Detroit on Wednesday 9.23.15. Protestors picket outside the UAW Solidarity House. (David Coates/The Detroit News)

As contract voting ramps up for 40,000 United Auto Workers members at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, some Metro Detroit workers are increasingly voicing concerns about the tentative four-year deal.

About 30 UAW members picketed the international union’s Detroit headquarters Wednesday, chanting and marching with signs with slogans like “Time for action, Protect & defend the retirees” and “Speak up for the rank and file.”

Some Fiat Chrysler members are concerned the proposed deal does not eliminate the contentious two-tier pay system; fails to cap entry-level hires; doesn’t do enough to address alternative work schedules; and doesn’t increase wages enough.

“I think their expectations were too high,” said Art Wheaton, labor expert with the Worker Institute at Cornell University. “I think the contract made very good progress on narrowing that gap. … The UAW has always had to do a building-block approach, you won’t get everything in one bite. ”

The contract does include $3,000 ratification bonuses; wage increases for both tiers of plant workers; hefty profit-sharing based on the company’s North American operations; and $5.3 billion in plant investments. And it narrows pay gaps between entry and veteran workers.

Voting on the deal got off to a rocky start earlier this week: Some workers who cast ballots at UAW Local 140 in Warren have to vote again due to a ballot error that combined balloting for its local agreement with the national.

Local unions representing about half of the hourly UAW workers at Fiat Chrysler are expected to have voted by Friday, according to a schedule compiled by The Detroit News.

Wage classifications

As some UAW members protested, Mopar workers in Center Line were voting on the deal, which some say creates what they see as a third pay tier.

Under the contract, there would essentially be four wage, or classification, systems for hourly workers: veteran at about $28 an hour or more; current tier-two topping out at $25.35 an hour; and Mopar and axle operators at $22 and $22.35, respectively.

“They created a third tier,” said Lamont Carr, a Local 1248 veteran worker who works in Center Line.

However, UAW President Dennis Williams argued Friday that the “wage groups” under the new contract were not creating additional pay tiers because “there’s a path” to get to higher wages.

“They’re not stuck. They’re not dead-end,” Williams said, later adding “a tier system is when you don’t have a path. That is a tier system.”

Under the proposed deal, Williams said, workers can bid for new positions and move to the up-to-$25.35 top-out for tier-two workers, which the union now calls “in-progression” workers.

Carr, who would be boosted to about $30 an hour under the deal, argued, “If one person isn’t fine, nobody’s fine” in the union.

One of those people is Rodrico Grazes, an entry-level worker at Center Line since 2010. He, as part of the tentative contract, expected to be bumped up to the $28 an hour wage.

“It’s a big difference,” said Grazes, who would instead be moved to $22 an hour. “There will never be no unity at all.”

Having different wage classification systems based on the type of work isn’t necessarily new in auto plants. Prior to the two-tier system, there was a diverse way of classifying workers based on seniority as well as type of work. General Motors Co. already employs hundreds at entry-level wages and benefits, similar to what suppliers would pay. In some cases, these pay rates and benefits are lower than entry-level pay and benefits that second-tier workers earn.

Some workers who earn less than starting second-tier wages are at a GM battery plant in Brownstown Township, Orion Assembly Plant and in a few other locations where GM operates new logistics centers. The company GM currently has a separate labor agreement with the UAW for those workers.

GM has added hundreds of new jobs through new sub-assembly, kitting and sequencing work. GM worked with the union to bring in work that previously was not done in-house.

Two-tier cap

Other workers this week, following contract details being announced on Friday, also argued that the union has deceived them by not reinstating a 25 percent cap on the entry-level, or tier-two, workers. About 45 percent, or 16,500, of Fiat Chrysler’s 36,600 union production workers are second-tier workers.

According to the 2011 highlighter, or contract summary, provided by the union, a 25 percent cap on entry-level workers would be “reinstated at the end of the contract, as outlined in the bankruptcy settlement agreement.” At that time, all workers in excess of that percentage were expected to receive “the same wages as traditional Chrysler workers.”

Since the two-tier system was implemented in 2007, workers have said it has divided factory floors. Many argued in favor of eliminating the system completely during this round of negotiations, which “bridges the gap” for entry-level assembly workers but puts Mopar and axle workers in two new wage segments.

“When they first released the production wages, we thought we were a part of that,” said Mike Hobbs, a tier-two Mopar worker in Centerline. “And we were OK with the $25.”

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