Howes: GM's contract peek sets 'floor' for UAW expectations

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

General Motors Co.’s decision to break tradition and publicly detail its contract offer to the United Auto Workers guarantees one thing — the automaker will be held to a standard of its own making.

In a process that prizes precedent, GM’s pledge to keep open its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant to produce a new electric truck and to build a battery plant in northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley essentially obligates the automaker to make good on its proposal. And that's unqualified good news in Detroit and in the region surrounding the automaker’s idled Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant.

United Auto Workers members picket outside General Motors Co.'s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant on Day One of the union's national strike against the automaker.

That's not all. The $7 billion investment eight facilities in four states to create 5,400 jobs, wage or lump-sum increases in each year of the next contract, an $8,000 ratification bonus — all of it cannot be excised from whatever contract the two sides eventually will reach.

However tricky local negotiations at both sites prove to be before the promises can be fulfilled, the outline of GM’s proposal gives the UAW “a floor,” as one person close to the situation said, on which union bargainers could craft a new four-year deal covering 46,000 UAW-GM members on strike since 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

It won't be easy. Talks continued during Day One of the UAW's first national strike in a dozen years, with bargainers setting a schedule for negotiating sessions even as they traded blame for mischaracterizing aspects of each other's tactics.

Union sources upped the volume on GM's health care cost-sharing proposal, saying the automaker proposed 15% cost-sharing up from 3% in the just-lapsed contract. But a source familiar with GM's situation described that 15% — which would have been a five-fold increase — as an opener the union fiercely resisted before it was withdrawn.

A GM source disputed UAW Vice President Terry Dittes' written insistence that the union leadership received GM's first comprehensive proposal "just two hours before" the contract expired at 11:59 p.m. Saturday. In response, a source close to the UAW  told The Detroit News: "We keep notes. The proposal they gave to us was at 10:07 p.m. on the 14th at the table."

Welcome to the silly season of a national strike. It's the interregnum between the emotional high of hitting the picket lines and the low of realizing that the accumulating economic pain is growing more acute than expected —  especially for newbies who haven't felt the sting of strike pay. 

It's time to talk tough, to trash the opposition, to distort its position in the service of advocating your own. The goal for both sides is the same: to sway public opinion and woo UAW members who possess the power to ratify or kill a hard-fought tentative agreement.  

Reality intrudes soon enough, pressuring both sides to bargain a tentative agreement and then begin the fraught process of selling the deal to a skeptical membership. If you thought 2015 was hard, when members working for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV rejected their first tentative agreement, imagine a union president implicated in a widening corruption investigation trying to make the case for ratification.

That wouldn't be easy, either. The federal investigation is a cloud hanging over bargaining, an unpredictable "black swan" event that could force a change in union leadership, the tenor of the strike and the contract talks with a single indictment. 

The strike for now has neutralized factions of the union's International Executive Board staking different positions on Jones' future as president. With the FCA and Ford Motor Co. bargaining teams essentially on hold during the GM strike, efforts to sideline Jones are on hold, too, even as his apparent legal jeopardy remains.

The first step toward getting past this dark chapter in the union's history begins with serious bargaining over serious issues. The results would help both sides navigate an uncertain transition to the next-generation auto industry — or steer both sides back into a ditch of their own digging.

Bargaining, as Cornell University's Art Wheaton told The Detroit News over the weekend, isn't about getting everything you want. It's about ending the macho antics, stopping the whining and agreeing to what both sides can accept.

A strike lasting more than a week could begin to cause meaningful damage to economic growth in the industrial Midwest, to GM's top and bottom lines, to the wallets of striking UAW-GM members. The only winner is likely to be the competition.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.