Howes: ‘Business-like’ bargaining marks automakers, UAW

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

With a little more than 10 days before the United Auto Workers’ national contracts with Detroit automakers expire, the silence is deafening.

How come UAW President Dennis Williams isn’t taking to WJR to denounce one of the companies? Where is the tension usually accompanying the quadrennial rite forged in the 1930s? Who killed the buzz on social media, a great leveler that can take snippets of information and whip everyone into a swivet?

The pace and tone of this year’s bargaining are remarkable for what isn’t happening so far, for the fact that looming barriers to ratification — whether the next-gen Jeep Wrangler will remain in Toledo or what will replace the Focus and hybrids at Michigan Assembly — are being systematically removed.

After more than a year marked by corporate dithering and panicky politicians in Ohio, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne effectively confirmed this week that the Wrangler will stay home. And Ford Motor Co. will replace its Mexico-bound compact models with a revived Ranger pickup, smothering a flashpoint in advance of the Sept. 14 contract deadline.

How boring it all seems, but it’s not. Bargaining between the UAW and Detroit’s automakers is a reflection of their time, the leaders on both sides of the table, competitive pressure and the macro-economic conditions shaping financial reality.

The unbridled power of Facebook and Twitter loom as a wild card in contract talks, potential sluices of half-truths and discarded proposals that could foment false controversies. With the exception of speculation by a few hard-left websites creating minor annoyances for the UAW, the threat so far has been contained.

The biggest differences this time are the prosperity of the automakers, chiefly Ford and General Motors Co.; the surging U.S. market and the expectation of more to come; and the guy who is running Solidarity House in ways his predecessors arguably never would.

“When there’s no controversy or yelling, the word ‘business-like’ comes out,” says Art Schwartz, a longtime labor-relations executive at GM who now heads his own Ann Arbor-based consultancy. “It’s true. Part of it is Dennis’ personality. His style is not that of, say, Steve Yokich.”

Understatement of the week, that. Where Williams’ predecessors tended to play tough-guy outsiders looking into the business, he is leveraging a decade as a director of Navistar International Corp. to inform a management style that relies on modeling and analysis to shape contract proposals, responses to the automakers and tone.

Where Yokich, UAW president from 1994 to 2002, would use local radio to savage individual executives — just ask longtime GM executive Mark Hogan, now a director of Toyota Motor Corp. — and Ron Gettelfinger would take to the airwaves to reach his members, Williams uses new technology and traditional media to share the union’s priorities and concerns.

It’s an approach that has floored many longtime industry execs who’ve spent the past generation or more close to national contract talks. As a rule, UAW presidents don’t countenance the media, and when they do, it’s generally on terms set by the union.

Williams is rewriting the playbook. Where his predecessors waited to engage personally in contract talks, union and company sources say the UAW president already is deeply involved in crafting portions of the deal. One side benefit is the ability to assess the bargaining styles and priorities at each company.

Where his predecessors tended to field revolutionary proposals quietly instead of make them publicly, the UAW president is pushing openly a plan to pool health-care coverage companies-wide in an effort to help the automakers contain rising health-care costs.

“We’re discussing it and we’ll see where it goes,” Ford Motor Co.’s executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., said Wednesday during an event in Inkster. “But again, it’s way too early.”

Yes, it is, meaning the cooperative tone amid the longest period of prosperity since the 1960s could turn decidedly tougher in the coming days. Williams needs to strike a difficult balance between delivering what’s perceived to be a fair contract and a deal that keeps the automakers competitive.

Company bargainers, for their part, need to demonstrate by what they produce that the Old Detroit of jobs banks, uncompetitive wages and indefensible work rules really did die with the global financial meltdown and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler Group LLC.

The hardest stretch lay ahead. After Labor Day, the chances increase that Williams could select a “lead company” with which to craft a tentative agreement to shop to the other two. Right now, he says he’s negotiating with all three.

At the same time, both sides are poised to plunge deep into the heart of every UAW-Big Three contract: divvying up the money. Wages and profit-sharing formulas cannot be set without addressing health care costs; future product allocations are affected by the holes left behind, and what they augur for jobs and job security.

A deal remains far from done, but Williams, his team and the auto brass are showing the Old Detroit way isn’t the only way to get there.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at

Catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.