Howes: Memory, fantasy collide in UAW contract drama

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

What do you get when you combine short memories with social media?

Answer: the trainwreck that is the United Auto Workers ratification votes this fall. Rarely in the course of this town’s epic labor-management history have such objectively rich contracts encountered such stiff resistance.

Blame, well, who — or what? Until now, the underappreciated power of Facebook and Twitter to turbo-charge critiques and outflank union leaders long accustomed to telling members what’s good for them and expecting enough of them vote accordingly? Partly.

Union leaders who struggle to understand how quickly the information landscape is changing, how smartphones can consume far more information far more quickly than any union hall meeting can dispense? Partly. Even corrections following rejection of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV deal aren’t proving enough to get deals with General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. ratified.

Company executives, who figured record signing bonuses, base wage-rate increases in two of the four years and essentially maintaining the status quo on health care would seal the deals? Yep, forgetting that the social media they do not control is the perfect tool for amplifying beefs and magnifying their Achilles heel known as fat executive pay.

Second-tier hires, who get paid less for doing the same work alongside their “traditional” brothers and sisters for some or all of the past four years? Sure. The dirty little secret of two-tier wages, instituted in the 2007 talks, is that they traded jobs for pay. Now that the push back is winning more pay, even if over eight years, the result will be fewer jobs.

Traditional workers, some of whom evidently came to view the past seven years of concession, restructuring and renewed profitability as an aberration in an otherwise long, slow, comfortable arc of Detroit decline? Unfortunately, yes.

Said Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committee member from Local 600 in Dearborn: “The Ford contract ... does not repay us for all the concessions we have given up. It does not even bring us back to the standard of living we were at before the concessions started.

“Yes, there is more money than in the last contract,” he continued in a statement. “But the legacy workers are still not nearly back to what we had before. The second-tier workers are facing a future living worse off than their parents. Why can’t we get back to the pay and benefits we used to have? Don’t tell us the company can’t afford it!”

Ford, of course, could afford to bring it all back — if, that is, the definition of affording it includes a U.S. market that runs at nearly 17 million units a year, gas closer to $2 a gallon than $3, historically low interest rates and an average fleet age of nearly 11 years, to name just a few.

But if they’re gonna bring it back, how ’bout bringing back all of it? Bring back the Jobs Bank, that totem of Detroit dysfunction members of Congress and the Obama administration’s auto task force — no enemy to the UAW — used to bash the union and the automakers.

Bring back COLA, the automatic wage escalator masquerading as a cost-of-living adjustment that ballooned payrolls and pension payments over and above any base-wage increases.

Bring back the debt that weighs heavily on the balance sheet; spurn the $23 billion “home improvement loan” that former CEO Alan Mulally used to rebuild the Blue Oval; restore the excess plant capacity that bleeds cash wherever demand is insufficient; widen the all-in labor cost gap with foreign-owned automakers operating in the United States.

Toyota, Nissan and Honda would love it, Wall Street would howl and skeptics in the general public would say “same Old Detroit — how quickly they forget.”

Look, I know all of this draws charges of anti-unionism: no one wants union members to get paid a living wage; without UAW pay and benefits there will be no middle class and no jobs; without a middle class, there is no wealth; without wealth, there are no taxes and no economy.

None of which is relevant here because these contracts are not a binary choice between the contract on offer and nothing. They’re a choice between the perfect and the good, between restoring the bad old days and providing meaningful financial gains for members, between losing a competitive edge and maintaining it — the best job security of all.

If there’s anti anything here, it’s anti-fantasy. The gulf separating UAW leaders from their members appears wider than Solidarity House may be prepared to acknowledge, but that doesn’t mean Solidarity House’s view of what constitutes a balanced contract is wrong.

As they are, the union’s proposed contracts with GM, Ford and FCA favor short-term financial gains for existing members over longer term prospects for job growth in U.S. plants. Getting more now is a legitimate choice for UAW members, but it won’t come without a cost.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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