Stakes remain high as UAW begins voting on new contract

Ian Thibodeau Breana Noble
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers leaders have a week to convince members to ratify a proposed new contract — and it won't be an easy task, members and experts say.

The stakes are higher than years past. General Motors Co. and the UAW have proposed an $11,000 ratification bonus to more than reimburse wages lost to the strike. The UAW also negotiated a path to permanent employment for temporary workers, to retain health care benefits, to win yearly raises or bonuses and $7.7 billion in direct plant investments.

Even as the UAW-GM tentative agreement is under consideration by more than 48,000 members, the strike continues until at least 4 p.m. Friday. Each additional day on strike costs GM, suppliers, the local economy and striking members tens of millions of dollars.

'UAW On Strike' picket signs are stacked up in a pile at the GM Warren Transmission Operations plant before striking UAW members hear there may be a tentative deal earlier this week.

Still, some members have said they plan to vote no on the first contract presented to them, regardless of what it contains. Others told The Detroit News the tentative agreement is appealing if only for the dollar amounts attached to it.

Count Dawn Hamilton, 36, of Redford Township as a no. She says the contract “has more holes than Swiss cheese.” She has been a part-time temporary employee in machining at the Romulus Powertrain Plant for nearly two years.

“I think we were out on strike for 33 days for nothing,” Hamilton said. “We have no chance at getting hired in. It just shows you how GM is not for us. They have given temps paid and unpaid vacation time, but that’s not what we wanted. We needed job security.”

That sentiment does not surprise Art Schwartz, president of Labor and Economics Associates in Ann Arbor and the former general director of labor relations at GM: "Given what happened in 2015 and because of the cloud hanging over the UAW leadership, they are less confident in being able to get this ratified.

"Leadership has been very transparent throughout the whole process. It's their job to get it ratified. And if they fail, the company's not going to be in a good mood to throw more in the pot." 

Karlton Byas, center, marches with other UAW members Thursday outside the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, where he does health and safety training for the UAW. He said they are hopeful and optimistic that the tentative agreement will bring an end to their strike.

The UAW plans to continue a strike against GM until at least the evening of Oct. 25 when it will tally votes for the contract. The delay will cost both sides millions of dollars while they wait for UAW leadership to sell members on a proposed contract with which some members are displeased, economic experts said.

There are no guarantees the contract will be ratified. If membership votes no on the tentative agreement, it wouldn't be the first time UAW members voted down the first offer from an automaker. Four years ago, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's UAW members voted down their first deal, sending negotiators back to the table to come up with a new deal.

That changed things, according to Schwartz and Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley professor who specializes in labor and the global economy. Members in 2015 showed they could reject a contract, and officials would come back with a sweeter deal. That could affect members' decision to ratify the first offer presented to them this year.

UAW officials also voted Thursday to keep members out on strike until a contract is ratified. That's a signal, Shaiken and Schwartz said, that leaders don't want to lose leverage over the company just yet — because they're not certain the tentative agreement will pass.

Meantime, UAW-GM members have lost more than a month of wages. The record ratification bonus would offset those wages and still leave extra cash in members' pockets. But the new contract enabling GM to officially close three U.S. plants —including Lordstown Assembly in northeast Ohio — could muster enough opposition to prevent ratification. 

"This is impossible to predict," said Shaiken. "It is more likely than not that it will be ratified in part because of a full month on the picket line. But there are clearly going to be some that have a problem with dimensions of the agreement."

GM and the UAW proposed a three-year on-boarding process for temporary employees. Yet the increase in base wage to $32.32 per hour by the end of the contract excites Chris Lage, 32, of Macomb, a team leader at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly who has worked for GM for nine years.

A flag and a UAW sign are positioned by a crosswalk at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Thursday, as union workers continue to strike GM plants.

"I never thought I would ever get over that amount," he said. "In four years, you can make the $32 per hour. I never ever thought in my wildest dreams that would happen. For years since 2007 when we took concessions, we’ve endured small wins, and we called them progress when really what we needed was a giant leap forward, and I think this is really it."

Lage says the closure of Lordstown Assembly is unfortunate, but he feels the union “won most of the battles, therefore, we won the war.” Now, he feels it is his responsibility and that of other members with seniority to put this contract in context and encourage them to vote yes.

"It’s on the membership of people like me to say, ‘Think about it. In four years, you’ll be making more than I made with your seniority,’" he said.

That's Hamilton's fear — that the contract will be too lucrative for most GM members to pass up: "This contract has divided us."

"That was GM’s plan," she continued. "The union has not done a good job by bringing this contract back to us. It’s a slap in the face. We’ve been out there on the picket line with our UAW brothers and sisters, screaming solidarity and wearing red, but we walk back in the same way we walked out."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau