Howes: UAW-GM talks to end strike sow confusion, frustration

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

On the day United Auto Workers leaders decided to strike General Motors Co., union Vice President Terry Dittes expressed disappointment they’d received the automaker’s “first serious offer” just two hours before their 11:59 p.m. deadline.

“Had we received this proposal earlier in the process,” the head of the union's GM department wrote, “it may have been possible to reach a tentative agreement and avoid a strike.”

United Auto Workers President Gary Jones shakes hands with General Motors CO. CEO Mary Barra to kick off contract talks that culminated in a weeks-long national strike against the automaker. -- Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

In an unprecedented step, GM publicly confirmed it had offered at least 2% wage or lump-sum increases in all four years of a new contract; agreed to improve the profit-sharing formula and retain industry-leading health care; offered an $8,000 ratification bonus; promised $7 billion in new investments in four states; pledged to keep open Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly with a new electric truck, to build a battery-cell plant in northeast Ohio's Mahoning Valley and to create 5,400 jobs.

Twenty-five days later, what’s changed? Outwardly, not much. The UAW is communicating far more regularly with its 46,000 striking members than GM is, but the union is saying a lot less when it does. No numbers, no percentages, no touting potential wins to reassure those on the picket lines that the wait is worth the strike pay. 

Instead of using GM’s publicly detailed offer as a basis for a new four-year deal, the growing trove of Dittes letters suggests union bargainers are careening from one hot-button issue to another. The net effect is prolonging the UAW’s longest national strike against GM since 1970 amid a continuing federal investigation into union corruption implicating UAW President Gary Jones, among others.

The confusion risks sowing frustration among striking members wanting to know where things really stand, why they're out so long and how they'll get back. Some are taking to Twitter to complain that they're not seeing the letters: "I've gotten more official updates from you," Almighty_Hebers wrote in a tweet to The Detroit News, "than I have almost anywhere else, including my local."

The target keeps moving. On Sept. 15, just hours before the strike began, the union said "important topics to discuss" included "wage increases, the wage progression for new hires, health care and prescription drug benefits, skilled trades issues, jobs security, profit-sharing and the treatment of temporary employees."

On Sept. 19, Dittes wrote that the strike is "for all the right reasons" — "to achieve true job security, our fair share of the profits, affordable health care and a path to permanent seniority for temporary members."

On Sept. 25, he reported that "all unsettled proposals are now at the Main Table" and that "this back and forth will continue until Negotiations are complete." Six days later, he wrote that "many areas" in GM's latest proposal "came up short like health care, wages, temporary employees, skilled trades and job security, to name a few.

He added: "Regardless of what is publicized in print or social media, etc., there are still many important issues that remain unresolved." Three days later, on Oct. 4, Dittes said, "we have made good progress regarding the issues of health care and a path for temporary employees becoming seniority members."

By Sunday morning, Oct. 6, "The negotiations have taken a turn for the worse," he wrote, as GM "reverted back to their last rejected proposal and made little change. The company's response ... did nothing to provide job security during the term of this agreement."

There's a signal there: the nearly singular focus on "job security" — a UAW euphemism for guaranteeing product allocations to existing plants to ensure jobs — is emerging as an overriding, if unsurprising, issue. GM's last proposal, passed to union bargainers 9:30 a.m. Monday and unanswered as of Wednesday evening, was deemed insufficient because job-security assurances apparently do not include pledges to build in U.S. plants all vehicles sold in the United States.

"We have made it clear there is no job security for us when GM products are made in other countries for the purpose of selling them here in the U.S.A.," Dittes wrote Tuesday. "We don't understand GM's opposition to this proposition. We are willing to discuss other ways to ensure real job security ..., but building more world-class vehicles at our UAW-GM facilities is the best solution ...."

With the exception of non-union Tesla Inc. in Fremont, Calif., not a single automaker operating in the United States — foreign or domestic — builds all the vehicles they sell here in the United States. That may be one reason explaining "GM's opposition to this proposition": exiting plants in Mexico and Canada is unlikely to reduce its hourly labor costs, the highest in the U.S. industry.

The UAW lament amounts to a union-engraved invitation to President Donald Trump. Dittes and the union's strategic communications adviser, SKDKnickerbocker, are practically begging the president to take to Twitter and bash GM for refusing to repatriate production to such underutilized plants as Lordstown Assembly, the vast complex in northeast Ohio that symbolizes GM's move to reduce capacity amid good times.

Trump has bigger problems at the moment, starting with the House impeachment inquiry. And it's not clear what he could actually do to get people back to work building cars, trucks and SUVs. That responsibility lies with GM and, especially, the UAW leaders who sent their folks out.

Now they have to find a way to get them back, and that's not always easy.

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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.