Warren Truck production workers support FCA deal

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

The tentative four-year contract between the United Auto Workers and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles received a lifeline on Monday, as a slim majority of production workers at Warren Truck Plant voted in favor of the deal.

The Metro Detroit facility — which employs more than 4,000 hourly workers — had 53 percent of production employees and 36 percent of skilled trades workers support the pact, according to voting results obtained by The Detroit News. The result came after several other Fiat Chrysler facilities, including Jefferson North Assembly on Friday, overwhelmingly voted against the deal.

The split in voting in Warren is a small victory for supporters of the deal. With three other large facilities expected to vote through Wednesday, there remains a chance for ratification, as Warren Truck joins at least one engine plant and some salaried local unions that are believed to have supported the deal.

“I hear a lot of people complaining about it, but I’m all for it,” said John Versace, an entry-level at worker at Warren Truck who voted Monday. “I see nothing but gains.”

Despite casting the “yes” ballot, the Warren Truck worker said he doesn’t think the agreement will be ratified. He and others told The Detroit News on Monday that they were worried what will happen if the contract is rejected by members.

Skilled trades and production workers must separately cast a majority of “yes” ballots for the contract to be ratified.

“Unless something drastically changes, I think it’s going to fail,” said Ken Mefford, a 20-year veteran worker at Warren Truck. “Is it a totally horrible contract? No. But is there anything for anyone to get particularly happy over? No.”

If the pact does get voted down, it would be the first time Chrysler workers have rejected an agreement since 1982, when 70 percent of the workforce voted “no,” according to the Journal of Business & Economic Research and media reports from the time. It also would come six years after Ford Motor Co. workers voted to reject a contract during a special round of negotiations following the emergence from bankruptcy in 2009 of Chrysler and General Motors Co.

At least three scenarios could unfold if ratification fails: Union leaders could head back to the negotiating table with Fiat Chrysler and its unpredictable CEO Sergio Marchionne; a strike or multiple strikes could occur; or the union could switch its attention to Ford or GM, which have both indefinitely extended their current contracts with the union.

“There’s a fair amount of risk for these folks,” said Art Wheaton, labor expert with the Worker Institute at Cornell University. “Many people think, ‘If we vote it down, they’ll come back with a better deal.’

“That’s not necessarily true.”

A history of dissension

Although opposition to the UAW-Fiat Chrysler deal is daunting, it isn’t unprecedented.

In 1982, Chrysler workers voted against ratification of the contract. Leadership eventually returned to the bargaining table to tackle issues of profit sharing, cost of living adjustments and raises (all issues UAW members have said they would like to see addressed more in the 2015 agreement, along with elimination of the two-tier wage system). They ratified the deal in December.

Back then, Chrysler was near bankruptcy prior to the contract and had to seek a loan guarantee from the government, said Mike Smith, archivist for the Michigan Historical Collections at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. He said the UAW president at the time, Douglas Fraser, had to go to members three times to get concessions to help the company get through the tough times.

“It is rare, rare, rare when the membership votes down a contract endorsed by the leadership,” he said.

In 2007, it appeared ratification with Chrysler would never happen, as majorities at six local unions, including four assembly plants, voted against the pact. Union President Ron Gettelfinger and Vice President General Holiefield “pulled out all the stops,” according to Smith.

“They went to the gates of the factory, they went to the membership,” he said. “They did their best to convince the membership it was a good deal.”

In the final few days of voting, workers changed their tune and the deal was eventually ratified.

Even during negotiations in 2011, when 58 percent of Chrysler production workers voted to ratify the contract, only 44 percent of skilled trades workers supported it. Union rules require contracts to be ratified by both skilled trades and production workers. UAW leaders in closed session voted to overturn the skilled trades veto and sign the agreement.

The current contract

The current proposed deal includes $3,000 ratification bonuses (down from $3,500 in 2011); wage hikes for both wage tiers of plant workers; hefty profit-sharing based on the company’s North American operations; and $5.3 billion in plant investments. It narrows pay gaps between entry and veteran workers.

There would essentially be four wage, or classification, systems: 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.

Many workers have voiced displeasure with the proposed deal, saying it 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.

UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell told The News on Sunday he couldn’t predict the outcome of the voting. “Mathematically, it’s still possible,” he said before speaking at an informational meeting for Toledo Assembly Complex workers with UAW Local 12 in Toledo.

Warren Truck was the first of four large plants that are expected to vote this week. The others are Sterling Heights Assembly Plant and Toledo Assembly Plant (both Tuesday) and Belvidere Assembly Plant in Illinois (Wednesday). Collectively, they employ more than 16,000 hourly workers.

“It ain’t over until it’s over, and these locals can make or break it,” said Kristin Dziczek, Center for Automotive Research director of the Industry & Labor Group. “And they don’t necessarily follow the people that have already voted.”

Belvidere workers were expected to vote Monday. However, according to an update from the local union, that was changed to Wednesday “due to feedback from membership” to separate informational meetings and voting.


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Staff writers Michael Martinez and Melissa Burden contributed.