UAW members expect strike to be 'worth it' when GM agreement is reached

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers members striking General Motors Co. say their expectations for a new four-year contract remain high as the work stoppage extends into a fourth week.

Wage increases, retaining low-cost health insurance benefits and creating a permanent pathway for temporary employees to become permanent hires are essential measures for many of the 46,000 members when it comes to a tentative agreement getting their support and ratified, they said. Even as a federal corruption investigation into the union's top leaders is underway, picketers who spoke with The Detroit News said they feel they can trust the people bargaining on their behalf.

Daniel Rider, 56, of West Lake, a machinist at GM's Romulus engine plant, says he expects a "fair and just" agreement while picketing outside the Renaissance Center in Detroit, the Detroit automaker's headquarters.

Ratification by a majority of the UAW's voting members will bring an end to negotiations at GM and allow the union to move on to completing talks with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Ford Motor Co.

The new contract "can’t be the same" as the previous one, said Chris Lage, 32, of Macomb, a nine-year GM team leader at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant. "Otherwise, the strike would not have been worth it.”

UAW members on Monday began receiving their second weekly strike pay up to $250, after missing a second paycheck from GM on Friday. Top-paid production employees earn $30.46 per hour, or about $1,220 per week. GM itself has lost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to analysts and economists.

“I still expect a fair and just agreement,” said Daniel Rider, 56, of West Lake, a seven-year GM machinist at the engine plant in Romulus. "They've lost $1 billion that they could’ve given to workers. I think we can get most of what we asked for, probably not all of it. Some people have really high expectations.”

Rider says a fair agreement would allow employees to retain their health insurance benefits under which they pay about 3% of total health care costs, align wages with inflation and hire temporary employees into permanent positions after no more than 120 days.

Temporary employees

Temporary employees began as replacements for summer vacations, but their roles have expanded to cover product launches, volume surges and general employee absenteeism. They represent 7% of GM's hourly workforce, and some are considered temporary for years. 

On health care and temporary employees, negotiators had made "good progress," UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said in a letter to local union leaders on Friday. Since then, however, talks had taken a "turn for the worse," Dittes, who is the head of the union's GM department, said Sunday in another letter. Pensions, wages, job security and skilled trades remained topics of disagreement between the UAW and the Detroit automaker.

The goals for temporary employees and wages are a "strategic move," said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School.

"Ratification always was going to be difficult," Wheaton said, as the company comes off four profitable years but faces uncertainty in declining sales, tariffs and trade, and the time it needs to recoup investments into autonomous and electric vehicles.

Once a tentative agreement is reached, the UAW's GM subcouncil of 200 local union leaders will vote when to end the strike either with the agreement or after ratification, which could take several more days and "is not a given," Wheaton noted. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV employees rejected an initial tentative agreement in 2015.

When the subcouncil decides to end the strike "is a way to measure the confidence of the UAW negotiating team to see if they can get a contract ratified," Wheaton said. "If they end the strike right away, they're pretty confident in what they bargained should be ratified. If they wait, they are telling GM, 'We're not confident we will ratify it.'"

The union made the compensation and treatment of new and temporary hires "their primary goal," Wheaton said. "There wasn't a huge amount of expectations around any changes to health insurance. That strategy has paid off in getting a lot of support in the community. Public support has been very strong for the UAW. Anyone can relate to a temporary job or a permanent job that pays less than others."

Dawn Hamilton, 36, of Redford Township has been a temporary employee at the Romulus plant for more than a year.

“I’m scared that if I’ve been out here all this time, and it doesn’t work out in my favor,” she said. Hamilton wants the new contract to hire permanently all current temporary employees and institute a trial for new hires that is less than a year. "I need to know if I should be looking for a job. We've done the same training, passed all the same tests, why not hire us in?"

Picketing so that future temporary hires do not have to work for years before being hired permanently makes a few weeks on strike worth it, said Erica Dishman, 45, of Ypsilanti, who was a temporary employee for a year 12 years ago before being hired with full seniority.

"It's sad," said Dishman, who works at the customer care and aftersales distribution center in her hometown. "You can't make plans to buy a house or a car. You don't know when you will get a job. There's not a pension or bonus. You can get strung along, and it all could end in 'psych.'"

Other issues

Newer employees who spoke with The News were more likely to say a clear path to seniority for temporary employees was more a top concern for them than employees hired before October 2007 — so-called "legacy" employees who make up more than 40% of GM's workforce. They had wage increases and health care at the top of their minds.

“Really, I’d just like it to be status quo,” said Robert Gidley, 65, of Westland, a 41-year GM toolmaker at the Romulus plant. “Keep the wages good, maybe a 3% wage increase and lump-sum bonus, profit sharing and no changes to health care like in previous contracts. I’m happy with what I’ve got.”

Although many members said they haven't budged on their expectations as the strike lengthens, Ava Prescott, 44, of Westland admits hers have changed, "and not for the better."

"I thought after three years of record profits, General Motors would work with us, they would give us a fair deal," said Prescott, a six-year GM machinist at the Romulus plant. "I didn't expect it to last this long."

Now that the strike has, Prescott says she has decreased her expectations to see employees hired after 2007 get a pension, not only the 401(k) retirement plan they receive. She, however, does hope that may be an option after an employee has worked for GM for a decade.

In that fight, "I trust Terry Dittes," Prescott said. “He was one of us. He came up from the floor. He seems like a good and honest man.

For four years, the federal government has investigated corruption in the union, in bargaining and in training centers jointly operated with and funded by the Detroit Three automakers. The probe has resulted in nine convictions and two more people charged, including Vance Pearson, the UAW's Region 5 director who is not a member of the UAW-GM bargaining team but had been advising the team negotiating a new contract with GM until he was placed on leave Friday.

The investigation also has implicated UAW President Gary Jones and his predecessor, Dennis Williams, though they have not been charged. They are two unnamed officials accused of orchestrating a years-long conspiracy that embezzled union member dues to buy personal luxuries in an affidavit filed by a U.S. Labor Department agent in the criminal complaint charging Jones, The Detroit News reported last month. Jones is present at the ongoing "main table" talks.

"We can't lose anything," said Karlton Byas, 63, of Detroit while marching outside the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, where he does health and safety training for the UAW. "We can't make any concessions. They're making a lot of profits with less people. We haven't shared in that prosperity."

"I don't think we have anything to do with that," said Karlton Byas, 63, of Detroit, a 35-year GM employee who does health and safety training for the UAW at Detroit-Hamtramck. "I think it is unethical, but it doesn't have to do with anything that we are working for here."

Added Sean Lolley, 44, of Adrian, a 22-year GM forklift driver at the Ypsilanti distribution center: "They're innocent until proven guilty."

But members said they feel confident in Dittes, who joined the union in 1978 while working at the Fisher Body Plant in Trenton, New Jersey. He later transferred to a GM parts plant in 1980 in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, and has worked his way up in the union since. He replaced Cindy Estrada as head of the UAW-GM department in January 2018 when she moved to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, a change viewed as a demotion for Estrada after she was identified as a person of interest in the corruption probe.

"He's very humble, very smart, very caring about the UAW member and laser-focused," said Cornell's Wheaton, to whom Dittes introduced himself while he was leading the UAW's Region 9 in Buffalo, New York. "I have not heard any one hint of any scandal" about him.

The letter Dittes wrote in response to GM in November when it identified five North American plants, including Detroit-Hamtramck and Warren Transmission, for closure earned him eight-year Detroit-Hamtramck paint department employee Michael Tremonti's support.

"I have faith in Terry Dittes," said Tremonti, 38, of Ferndale. "I have no doubt he's fighting for us."