GM skilled trades workers want to renegotiate UAW deal

Michael Wayland, and Melissa Burden

Many of General Motors Co.’s skilled trades workers want to reopen their part of the contract, but are concerned United Auto Workers leaders will ratify a tentative agreement with the automaker despite the group’s rejection of the deal.

After 59.5 percent of GM’s estimated 8,500 skilled trades workers voted against the pact, UAW leadership has been investigating the reasons behind the opposition to determine their next move. Expected outcomes include either ratification or returning to the bargaining table to focus specifically on skilled trades issues. A strike against the automaker is unlikely.

Several workers and local union leaders have told The Detroit News that skilled trades workers are concerned over re-classifications of skilled trades that could require them to do multiple jobs; that they may lose seniority or shift preferences; that work may be outsourced; and that no buyout incentives were offered to skilled trades workers. Others believe not enough apprentices are promised, despite the fact that more than half of the 8,500 workers are eligible to retire.

“The skilled trades side of the agreement is a concessionary agreement,” said Dennis Ybarra, a GM worker since 1977 and skilled tradesman since 2000. “I would hope that they would go back to General Motors. There are some serious issues on the skilled trades side.”

Ybarra, a 62-year-old millwright at Orion Assembly in Orion Township, cited the cross-classification of skilled trades workers as potentially leading to “unsafe” working conditions. He had questions about seniority following re-classification.

The UAW said Friday it had not ratified GM’s agreement even though 55.4 percent of hourly workers overall supported it. The union said it would hold meetings with skilled trades members at each plant to determine “what reason(s) they had for rejection of the tentative agreement. Once that inquiry has concluded, the UAW’s International Executive Board shall meet to determine what appropriate steps shall be taken.”

The UAW said results of the process with the skilled trades workers cannot change aspects of the agreement which are common to all members.

Both skilled trades and production workers must ratify the deal separately for ratification. Each group has parts of the contract tailored to their classifications. The UAW can overrule a rejection by skilled trades workers if the union finds they voted against it for reasons other than issues unique to skilled trades.

In 2011, 55.6 percent of skilled trades workers for Chrysler Group LLC (now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US) voted against their deal. But in a combined tally, Chrysler’s production and skilled trade workers voted 54.8 percent in favor of the contract — leaving the union’s International Executive Board to evaluate the intent of the “no” ballots.

In 1973, the final vote on a national contract at Ford Motor Co. also resulted in a split between trade workers and production workers.

In both cases, the executive board decided to affirm ratification of the contracts. Some workers believe that should not be allowed to happen again.

“We’re afraid that the international, the executive committee, is going to decide that we’re against the contract for economic issues, and they’re just going to say, ‘We have the right to pass this contract,’” said Les Spoth, a skilled trades worker at GM’s Tonawanda Engine Plant in New York. “We feel if that happens it’s basically a felony, and that there should be a Congressional committee.”

Brandy Booth, a former skilled trades worker of about 20 years who now works production at Bay City Powertrain, said he doesn’t necessarily agree with pushing the deal through, but said workers have to amend the union’s constitution if they want it changed.

“I understand that our constitution reads a certain way and I really do think that people will never win this argument like this,” said Booth, 42. “If they want this not to happen again, they’ve got to get in and change the constitution.”

GM’s deal with the union promises 1,300 new skilled trades placements, including at least 400 new apprentices. It also promises retraining for skilled trades currently working in production, according to the contract highlighter. GM has said the first 200 apprentices out of the minimum 400 to be added during the life of the contract would come in 2016.

UAW Local 599 held its meeting with 110 skilled trades on Sunday, said Dan Reyes, president of the union local that represents a total of 465 hourly workers at Flint Engine.

Reyes said all concerns from skilled trades shared during the meeting were related to their classification. He said workers were concerned about a guaranteed number of apprentices. They also they wanted further clarity on whether they would keep seniority rights if skills were combined. At least two other officials with local unions said concerns at their plants also have been about skilled trades classification, including keeping the integrity of the trades intact.

A UAW spokesman Tuesday said no meetings with the international union have been scheduled yet on the issue and didn’t know how soon the group would make a decision. GM declined to comment.

UAW leaders are scheduled to begin meeting with Ford hourly workers this week; they will begin voting on their own tentative agreement. At least one UAW local, UAW Local 551 representing workers at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, is splitting informational meetings for production and skilled trades workers in part to capture skilled trades concerns and “have the undivided attention of the bargaining team.”

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