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UAW shifts ratification strategy for new FCA deal

Michael Wayland, and Melissa Burden

The new tentative agreement between the United Auto Workers and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV includes significant gains over a previous agreement that was rejected by union membership. But ratification of the deal by the 40,000 union members who work for the automaker remains far from guaranteed.

Union leadership must now take the proposed contract to the same membership that defied leaders’ recommendation last month, and overwhelmingly voted down the first deal with the automaker that Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne called “transformational.”

The UAW ultimately will have to do things differently this time around to appease the 65 percent of members who voted against the first deal. And it’s not just about improvements over the first deal, which many industry insiders felt was fair for both sides. UAW leaders must do a better job of communicating to members, clearly detail the highlights of the contract and persuade members this is the best deal possible — all failures the first time around.

“The embarrassing missteps with the initial contract undermined the union leadership’s credibility with both management and their rank and file,” said Patrick Anderson, principal and CEO of Anderson Economic Group LLC, an analyst group in East Lansing. “It is likely that the union leadership’s rhetoric about the initial agreement failed to match reality regarding the two-tier wage system, and this became a serious grievance among rank and file.”

UAW President Dennis Williams on Friday sounded confident the deal would be ratified, calling it “one the richest ever negotiated” in a joint statement with UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell, who led negotiations with Fiat Chrysler.

One of the hardest things might be gaining the trust of union members that the UAW and Fiat Chrysler will fulfill the terms of an eight-year progression for entry-level, or second-tier workers to match the wages of veteran workers.

Under the new agreement, second-tier workers would make about $29 an hour or more depending on the job, up from $25.35 under the previous rejected contract. It’s a $10-an-hour hike from their current ceiling of $19.28 an hour.

Wage hikes would happen over eight years, but details could change when the next four-year contract is negotiated in 2019.

“Everything would be open for negotiations again,” said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts.

Chaison said that promising something over eight years could be problematic to the union and “make the UAW membership wary.”

About 45 percent, or 16,500, of Fiat Chrysler’s 36,600 union production workers are second-tier workers.

UAW chief confident

Asked if he’s concerned about the eight-year pay progression under a four-year contract, Williams said he is “comfortable that this is a system that can work.”

“There will be people growing to the top wage progression within a year, then two years, then three years, then four years,” he said, adding the company “committed” to the progression. “Everybody will see it working.”

Some workers said the union deceived them by not reinstating a cap on the percentage of tier-two workers that had been promised in the last contract in 2011.

According to the 2011 union highlighter, 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.”

To explain the latest contract talks, the union launched a social-media blitz last week that provided clear, to-the-point updates several times a day about negotiations, strike preparation and agreement updates.

“They have to do a better job than what they did last time,” said Art Schwartz, president of Ann- Arbor-based consultancy firm Labor and Economics Associates. “They know that, and you’re seeing that. They’re using social media more and they’re trying to reach out to membership more.”

After the union on Friday released a summary of the new deal — the highlighter — officials have been explaining it on the union’s Facebook page.

The highlighter, which many pointed to as a failure during the first tentative deal, is far more clear and detailed than last time.

“Most people don’t want to read a thousand pages, so they rely on a strong highlighter to tell them what’s in the agreement,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry & Labor Group at the Center for Automotive Research.

The second proposed deal was reached Oct. 7, just before a union-imposed strike deadline. There was no joint press conference with Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne the second time around, just statements from the union that the deal “secured significant gains” and addressed members’ issues.

“They didn’t want a photo op of Marchionne hugging Dennis Williams again,” said Art Wheaton, labor expert with the Worker Institute at Cornell University, referencing the two embracing in July during the opening of negotiations.

Informational meetings

Local union leaders will take their time in holding informational meetings with the rank and file. Voting will occur in the coming weeks. No deadline has been set for balloting to end.

Not giving workers more time to review the deal ahead of voting was a misstep that Williams said leadership made when attempting to ratify the first deal. He said the union will not make that mistake again.

“They’re going to go at it in a thoughtful matter, where everybody gets a chance to view this agreement and everybody gets their questions answered,” Williams said, adding local union leaders are “going to lead” on explaining it — a change from the first time, when Jewell spoke at numerous meetings.

Williams on Friday said he did not know if Jewell would attend as many of the meetings this time. A union spokesman on Sunday said there was no update on Jewell’s appearances.