UAW-GM deal adds tech committee to address industry changes

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The United Auto Workers and General Motors Co. would partner under their new contract to manage the impact of new technologies that threaten a century-old manufacturing process currently employing tens of thousands.

The National Committee on Advanced Technology, created in the tentative UAW-GM agreement, would meet quarterly to address the changes the Detroit automaker must implement as it tests 3D printing, plans to pilot driverless taxis in the streets and introduces globally 20 battery-electric vehicles that require fewer parts than their internal combustion counterparts.

GM says it will bring these electric vehicles to market by 2023 — when the proposed contract with the UAW would expire.

A battery-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV makes its way down the assembly line at General Motors' Lake Orion Assembly.

"Having an understanding of this is extremely important right now," said Larry Burns, a tech business adviser and former GM vice president of research and development. The committee "could be a way for the management to speak with the union and the union to speak with the management on where the transportation industry is headed. It's a good thing, though I'm not going to say it's going to be a happy story what with vehicles that last longer and have half as many parts requiring less labor, fewer engineers and fewer purchasing personnel."

Conventional drivetrains have as many as 20,000 parts, but electric ones can consist of fewer than 20 without multi-speed transmissions, radiators, exhaust systems and more. The all-electric Chevrolet Bolt's powertrain has 80% fewer moving parts than a comparable car with a gasoline engine, experts have said. And autonomous vehicles that operate like ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft likely will be built to last longer and won't need steering wheels, brake pedals and instrument panels, Burns added.

Regulations to reduce emissions, especially in China, GM's largest market, and Europe, are pushing automakers to electrify. But electric vehicles account for less than 2% of overall U.S. sales today, and forecasts expect their market share still will be less than 20% by 2030.

The new tentative agreement aims to accelerate GM's transformation by allowing it to close four U.S. facilities, including two transmission plants in Baltimore and Warren. The move is expected to save the automaker billions of dollars, though it has led thousands of GM employees to uproot and move.

"That's definitely on all of our minds, that it takes less people," said Daniel Rider, 46, of Westland, a machinist at GM's Romulus Engine plant. "You can't stop it from coming if that's what they want to do, but I don't see the market for electric cars. Where is the infrastructure?"

The new committee would consist of three representatives each from the automaker and the union, according to the proposed contract. Although less work content from autonomous and electric vehicles is not the focus of it, the committee could enhance communication between the company and the union about the new technologies GM elects to use and whether they will have an impact on UAW-represented personnel. Reviews of the company's U.S. portfolio plans would happen at least annually.

The goal would be to put in place training for employees to use new equipment and technology to avoid worker displacement, as a nearly 40-page report on electric vehicles issued by the union earlier this year suggested. The entity itself would not train workers; it would seek to have the parties work together to lead in these transformations in the auto industry.

"The Company is mindful of the Union’s concerns and is certain that mutually agreeable ways to evolve the bargaining unit with advanced technologies can be found," Scott Sandefur, vice president of labor relations for GM North America, wrote in a letter to UAW Vice President Terry Dittes that is included in the tentative agreement.

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.

Ford Motor Co.'s 2015 contract instituted a quarterly meeting between union officials and the Dearborn automaker's manufacturing leadership, though its focus was not solely on advancements in technology.

The UAW referred to statements in its bargaining resolution passed in March, which says the union must embrace technological advances through workforce training that it expects could provide more job opportunities in the future.

The union's "Taking the High Road: Strategies for a Fair EV Future” report also discussed the "implications" of electric vehicles and how to address them. One of the greatest concerns was that companies would outsource electric vehicle parts to non-union suppliers. Today, most batteries installed in plug-in cars come from LG Corp., Panasonic Corp. and other Asia-based suppliers. GM sources its cells from LG Chem Ltd. in Holland on the west side of the state.

"They're setting a precedent now for how these jobs will be for the future," Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "That's why they had to take this on in this contract."

Sandefur's letter reaffirms the statement on technological progress included in the UAW-GM 2015 contract. It asserts GM will not shift functions done by union employees to non-union workers with the introduction of new technology and that GM will retrain UAW members for "other needed work functions" if their original tasks are eliminated because of technology.

Committees in the past that have been successful sharing a common set of characteristics, said Art Schwartz, president of Labor and Economics Associates in Ann Arbor and the former general director of labor relations at GM. Committees typically have been effective when the company is willing to share information like what it plans to build, how it plans to builds it and what manufacturing impact that will have. Both sides also must be willing to talk over taking hard stances, and they must be able to trust each other.

A federal corruption probe into the union that implicates its top leaders, however, may challenge that. Additionally, GM "squandered that trust" with the union in November when it announced its intentions to close four U.S. plants the Monday after Thanksgiving, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who studies labor issues. The committee, however, indicates "GM is looking to work with the union as a vital part of this transition," Shaiken said.

The almost 49,000 UAW-GM employees who have been on strike for more than five weeks began voting on the tentative agreement on Saturday. The UAW wants local unions to report their ratification totals by 4 p.m. Friday.

Meanwhile, GM is planning to build its first battery-cell manufacturing facility in northeast Ohio as it ramps up its electrification efforts. The joint-venture facility with LG Chem, however, would not be covered under the proposed master contract with the UAW, which means its employees may not receive the same pay and benefits as other UAW-GM employees. The plant would employ 1,000 people in union jobs covered by a separate contract; Baltimore and Warren combined employed more than 630 people when GM identified them for closure last November.

The tentative agreement saves Detroit-Hamtramck, which GM had slated for closure. GM plans to allocate $3 billion to build electric trucks, vans and battery modules there and employ up to 2,225 people. The plant currently operates on one shift and employs 803 people.

The increase in employment is good news, said Chris Lage, 32, of Macomb, who works at Detroit-Hamtramck as a team leader, but he worries about the adoption of electric vehicles.

"It has me thinking what everyone thinks when it comes to electric cars: How quickly will the world adapt to switching over to electric cars?" he said, noting many places he frequents like his gym do not have electric charging ports to support adoption. "It’s really just on GM to put a product out there that consumers want to buy. If they can accomplish that, for D-Ham’s sake, I think there will be nothing to worry about."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble