Contract vote still up in the air as GM workers continue to picket

The United Auto Workers’ National Council approved a tentative deal with General Motors last Thursday. Locals were fed back information, voting by the union membership started this Saturday and will continue till Friday, October 25th, with individual locals setting their own voting times. Eirc Fred reports on what the current contract on offer would mean for GM workers.

The strike won several points, and includes a signing bonus, raises, and health benefits continued as is. It does not stop the scheduled closure of three plants, with loss of jobs. Instead of eliminating in this contract the hated system of several tiers for workers, it specifies a complex “shortening” of advancement, that will still have some workers doing the same job still paid less in four years from today—in a four-year contract. Yet, despite a lackluster campaign by the union leadership, solidarity by UAW workers on the picket line and supporters has accomplished some real improvements. If autoworkers listen to their fellow workers from Lordstown, and vote no to this contract, it will be a strong push to the profitable GM to get better guarantees’ for the ex-Lordstown workers and the long-term part-time temps.

So far voting has varied between locals. The mostly engineering workforce at the Technical Center, in Warren, Michigan voted 85% in favor of the deal. But on Tuesday workers at the GM Components Holdings plant in Rochester NY rejected the deal by 83%.  In most locals the voting is much closer.

Workers have been out on strike during difficult negotiations with GM for 35 days, the longest U.S. auto strike in half a century. Instead of calling off the pickets when the tentative agreement was reached, as is normal, the union decided to continue the strike through the voting period. Although GM stocked up on vehicles before the strike, in many places lots are now empty, which will put additional pressure on GM should the strike continue.  

With workers also suffering from the long strike, the contract offers large signing bonuses to tempt them back. There is also a minimal but needed raise. And workers will retain their health benefits, with the same employer contribution. 

Much of the press accounts mirror the Detroit Free Press in saying “the union appears to have won on many of its goals, including a path to permanent employment for temporary autoworkers and a faster route to top pay for workers hired after 2007.” The first obvious exception to this that the union has accepted the loss of the major Lordstown plant in Ohio, and the two transmission plants in Baltimore and Warren (a forth slated for closure, “Poletown,” or Detroit Hamtramck, will stay open building electric trucks). Nor have they guaranteed that the company can not “de-accession” other plants. Workers from Lordstown and their supporters rallied in Detroit after the agreement was announced Thursday saying “no product, no contract,” and “Vote No!” Another exception is that the agreement still ends in tiers, with the “path to full time pay” unclear. Solidarity on the picket line, with workers on all levels saying they would not go back to work without bringing the lower paid works up to standard, meant the union and company negotiators were not able to get away with a package of bonus, pay raises, and healthcare defense that once again ignored the pre-2007 “in progression” workers and the “temporary” workers doing the same jobs on and off for many years. This contract does “shorten the path” to full pay for some. Jane Slaughter, ex auto-worker and longtime reporter for Labor Notes, said in a recent webinar that she has counted nine “tiers” in the new contract.

“In-Progression” workers are 35% of the GM union workforce and start at $17 an hour. They are the workers hired after 2007 on a lesser pay scale. The new contract shortens the progression from 8 years to 4 years to reach their full pay (now $28 an hour), and it stipulates that by September 2023, all permanent manufacturing employees will be at the legacy rate of $32.32 per hour. Getting rid of this division, which had co-workers in the same union working side by side in the same job on different pay scales, was an important demand, and it should have been done immediately. But it is important to note that workers’ solidarity won this step forward in getting rid of this divisive tier.   

Yet workers at certain warehouses and component plants still have a top salary of around 25 an hour, rather than 32, and continue to have an 8 year progression.

Full-Time temporary workers make up 7% of the GM union workforce. Their path to reach full time will be 3 years, starting on Jan. 6, 2020, but only if they have already had three years continuous service as a full time temp. Many temporary workers may not qualify for the “continuous” service. How many is still unclear.

It has also been reported that the contract “provides a path” for part-time temporary employees to convert to regular status, starting January 1st, 2021. But, again, according to the Union’s 20 page contract summary, this will only be “upon completion of two years of continuous service provided the last 12 months were as a full-time temp.” Again, there will be many part-time temporary workers who do not meet this qualification. There is an understandable suspicion that GM will end up laying off layers of temps for just over 30 days in the slow season, making them ineligible for “continuous service.” And while a few thousand will probably move out of the permatemp positions, more will be hired at the bottom of the scale, continuing the inequality.

Other “tiers” not even mentioned are those not covered by this GM contract. In special units like the plant in Orion Township, MI, that makes the Chevy bolt and self-driving prototypes, UAW members work for a GM subsidiary called GM Subsystems Manufacturing with lower pay and benefit levels than those under the master agreement. Workers in the new battery plant near Lordstown OH are predicted start with a wage of $17 an hour.Jobs like janitors in the auto plants, and some logistic jobs were once GM employees and organized by UAW, but are now contracted out and out of the bargaining unit. Janitors in several Ohio and Michigan plants also on strike are contracted out to Aramark are organized by UAW under a different contract, and earn $15 an hour. These jobs were once available at scale for older UAW auto workers whose heavy repetitive work on the assembly line meant they physically needed a different kind of work before reaching retirement. The Aramark strikers have also reached a tentative deal that needs to be ratified by members. Despite the simultaneous strikes, there was no effort to have them brought back to par or combine the bargaining units.

Before the bailout in 2009, if GM shut down a plant, it had to retain its permanent UAW workers, assigning them other jobs. That guarantee was lost, but with GM now hugely profitable again, now is the time to bring that back into the contract, or see further losses of union jobs.

If this contract goes through as is, the future problem may be that, just as tier two is about to finally reach full pay, GM is allowed to close their plants–re-opening electric vehicle plants with sub-systems workers on a lower contract, or opening replacement plants in Mexico, where workers are still paid extraordinarily less. The last contract called for no plant closures, but several were “de-accessed” anyway. The language around job security in this contract, about strengthened management/union committees “to discuss the impact of future technologies on UAW members and address instances where bargaining unit work has shifted out of the unit due to new manufacturing processes” and be “engaged in activities around identifying opportunities to retain work” does not inspire confidence in the UAW reversing the steady decline in numbers of union auto workers.  

While the union leadership is recommending the adoption of this contract as containing “major gains,” many voices are saying vote no and negotiate improvements.  

Voting on the GM contract started Saturday, October 19th, and will continue till Friday, October 25th, with individual locals setting their own voting times.

As we update this note on Wednesday, plants in Tennessee and Kentucky have voted down the contract. The GM Components Holdings plant in Rochester which overwhelmingly rejected it, with only 17% voting in favor, seems and outlier. Lessons from that plant would be important to circulate. Several Michigan and Ohio plants have voted in favor. The 4,500 workers at a Fort Wayne, Indiana plant and the 5,000 in Arlington Texas have not yet voted.

UAW members who had been at the three closed plants (Lordstown, OH, and the ex-transmission plants near Baltimore and Detroit) seem to be overwhelmingly and vocally voting no, but many had transferred to other plants and are now scattered around the country.

A stronger independent rank and file movement across the UAW could have helped amplify these voices, and convince other workers.  Many workers interviewed had reservations about the contract, but assumed other people would be voting yes.

Whatever happens in this contract, the union still needs to start organizing to bring up the wages and benefits of workers in the electric vehicle and battery plants up to this level, and to improve the wages and conditions of Mexican UAW workers, which will be a major victory for all workers on either side of the border. The surge in activism around both the immigration issue and stopping climate change show there is not just public sympathy for the strikers, but massive potential allies if the UAW demands are pitched this way. The incredible solidarity shown by workers in this strike could be built on and extended to that end, but not if they wait for the initiative of the present leadership.

But this week, workers need a contract that safeguards their jobs for the future, and should vote “No” on a contract that does not.

Eric Fred