Howes: UAW's Williams seeking 'balance' in auto talks

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams is right about this: Next year's national contract talks with the Detroit automakers will be all about balance.

Namely, how will automakers reaping billions in annual profits from the U.S. market credibly resist the certain push for general wage increases, the first in nearly a decade for so-called "legacy" union members?

And how will union bargainers square their financial demands with their professed commitment to keep their employers' all-in labor costs competitive with foreign rivals operating in the United States?

It'll be a difficult balance, with occasionally uncomfortable facts supporting both sides. But there is one undeniably common interest: demonstrating that the discipline tied to bankruptcy and federal bailouts is not giving way to the flabby, bad habits of the past in management and labor.

"We should never forget what happened in '08 and '09," Williams said Monday in a year-end media roundtable. "We have to keep in mind that we want to keep the companies competitive. But at the same time, we want our members to have a lifestyle to maintain a family life."

I can hear the cacophony already — from the haters saying the union already has forgotten how close the Detroit-based industry came to extinction, and from the union backers saying next year's negotiations should be all about clawing back what circumstance stole.

Defensible reality lies somewhere in the middle. The truth is that the existential crisis of the past is the past, even if its lessons aren't. Break-even points for each automaker are dramatically lower than in 2008. Demand is expanding, albeit more slowly than in the past few years.

And the automakers' desire to hold the line on fixed labor costs cannot be squared easily with tens of billions in combined profits over the life of the current contract. Acknowledging and managing those optics will prove a major challenge for company bargainers and the three CEOs, particularly newcomers Mary Barra at GM and Mark Fields at Ford.

So will efforts to maintain second-tier wages for new hires, a marker of the industry's slide toward financial collapse that the union and many members want to abolish because they find them so divisive, compromising and philosophically distasteful.

"We're true believers that within the industry people ought to be paid the same," Williams said, dismissing suggestions that demanding higher wages and promising to keep the automakers competitive with foreign rivals cannot be reconciled.

"I don't think it's sliding backwards when CEOs are getting paid like they are. Asking for balance is not sliding backwards. It's time for our membership to have a reward. Whether we can achieve that is another matter."

Next year's round of bargaining, essentially kicked off this week by Williams' public comments, is a critical and highly visible exercise for all sides. What each gets and how the results balance their competing financial interests will signal to investors, employees, even customers, just how different the New Detroit auto industry is from Old Detroit.

Yes, this is new territory — bargaining from a position of domestic profitability not seen in the working lives of anyone involved; bargaining with the first UAW president to have never headed one of the union's Big Three auto departments or worked in the industry itself.

It's bargaining with companies expected to balance the rhetoric of teamwork, competitiveness and cooperation with financial heft, investor demands and the fact-based optics of executive compensation. It's managing prosperity and competitiveness more than managing decline and diminishing expectations.

It's bargaining with a union tarnished by the collapse of '08 but making organizing in-roads at Volkswagen AG in Tennessee and Mercedes-Benz in Alabama. The UAW needs a responsible contract next year with Detroit's Big Three to strengthen its case for representation in the largely non-union South.

This is also familiar territory. The UAW's national contract talks with Detroit's automakers are equal parts politics, economics and theater. Now, more than six months out from the start of bargaining, is the time for the union's new president to deliver politically necessary messages in stark economic terms his members and the news media expect to hear.

Williams obliged Monday, voicing concerns about inequality and free-trade agreements, two-tier wages and the scourge of temporary hires, rebuilding the strike fund and solving disputes without a strike, protests and marches: "It's time for the American people to take back their country. We've been hijacked."

By whom or what he didn't exactly say.

The new boss at Solidarity House will get ample opportunity next year — in talks with Detroit's automakers, John Deere, Mitsubishi and state employees — to show what direction he and his team will take a union desperate to bolster dues-paying membership in its defining industry.

It's a big deal for Detroit, still. 222-2106Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at