Finley: Union, not GM, is exploiting UAW strikers

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that newer hires are no longer in UAW's pension plan.

Picket lines are magnets for Democrats, so it's no surprise the UAW strike has brought presidential hopefuls and congress members scurrying to Detroit to stand in solidarity with autoworkers, bringing with them donuts and reality-defying rhetoric.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks with members of the press after walking with GM UAW members and supporters on the picket line at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant on Sunday.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was here over the weekend pitching the walk-out as a last stand for the American middle class and chastising General Motors for exploiting its workers.

But the strike, now into its second week, isn't about protecting the jobs and lifestyles of manufacturing workers — the contract GM put on the table would improve both. The work stoppage is all about saving the fannies of UAW President Gary Jones and other top union leaders caught up in an ongoing corruption scandal.

UAW autoworkers are the elite of America's blue collar workforce. Going into the strike, the GM workers enjoyed a base pay of about $1,200 a week, or roughly $60,000 a year. With overtime and shift differentials, the average union worker at GM earns about $90,000 annually. That's a third more than the average Michigan school teacher.

Last week, the reliably ridiculous Rep. Rashida Tlaib joined strikers to decry GM's emphasis on profits over people. The GM workers should have sent her packing. The more profit GM makes, the more they make.

For each of the past four years, GM has issued profit sharing checks of more than $10,000 to its union employees. That's a dandy annual windfall for someone saving for retirement or college. In comparison, for the one-third of American workers who share in profits, the average check is $2,000.

Warren and Tlaib should appreciate that GM's profit distribution is more collectivist than capitalist. Owners of the company reap just $1.67 a year in dividends per share. A GM stockholder would have to hold more than 6,000 shares, or roughly a quarter million investment, to get as large a piece of the profit pie as an union employee. 

Veteran UAW autoworkers are among the rare group of employees in this country who still get pensions, which they can collect after 30 years on the job. (Newer hires have been moved to 401(K) plans.) They also have near fully paid health insurance (they cover 3% of their health care costs, compared to the national average of 30%). And the coverage carries into retirement.

You might expect the UAW to go on strike had GM been trying to take away part of that rich compensation package.

It wasn't. The deal the union walked away from would have raised base wages by 4% over four years, while adding 4% in bonus money in addition to the $8,000 signing bonus to be paid on ratification of the contract. The package would have given workers extra cash totaling roughly 20% of their base pay.

It's the best contract offer the UAW has seen from an automaker in a decade. But again, it's not about the money. It's about the corruption.

Strikers should feel betrayed that their indictment-dodging union leaders are costing them more than $1,000 a week to deflect the heat of the FBI probe. Instead, they're aiming their outrage at GM for shifting the cost of their health care to the union and its $700 million strike fund.

It shows how detached they are from the real world. Strikes are about economic leverage. Unions try to cause employers enough economic pain to force a settlement. Why wouldn't the company do the same to the union?

Democratic pols may think they're building street cred with America's working folks by rallying to the UAW strikers. But most of the country's laborers would change places with the GM autoworkers in a heartbeat.

If Warren is looking to champion downtrodden workers, she's not going to find them marching outside an auto plant.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN