Will the UAW Vote Down the GM Contract?

UAW members picket in Rochester, New York last fall (Zach D. Roberts)

Co-published with the American Prospect

ROCHESTER, NY – “Keep jobs in America,” shouted 56-year-old African American GM worker John Avery on Wednesday as he waved his hands in the air. Despite the cold autumn rain, Avery is a ball of energy jumping up and down, screaming, “Keep jobs in America.”

“I just got it in me right now,” laughs Avery as supporters pass by blaring their horns. Avery is in a good mood today. Just a few hours earlier, his union, the UAW, reached a tentative agreement with General Motors to end the strike that has shut down the automaker for more than a month.

The mood of Avery’s co-workers on the picket line on Wednesday was ecstatic shortly after the news of the tentative agreement was received.

“This is what it feels like when you win,” says UAW Local 1097 Recording Secretary Chris Brancato as he laughs and carries on with his co-workers on the picket line.

A day later, after reading the details of the proposed tentative agreement, Brancato doesn’t feel like it’s such a victory.

“We don’t want this pile of crap,” says Brancato as we talk.

Over the next week, workers at General Motors are slated to debate whether or not they want to accept the tentative agreement reached by UAW leadership and General Motors this week. However, workers may follow the lead of striking teachers in West Virginia, who in 2017 rejected their first deal made by union leadership, and demanded that they go back to the table to negotiate a better deal.

For a strike that started with bold demands of stopping outsourcing, creating a clear path to permanent status for temporary employees, and ending a two-tiered wage system, many workers at General Motors feel that the UAW has fallen well short of those goals in their tentative agreement with the company.

The proposed tentative agreement does make some improvements. It shortens the time by half for workers to transition away from the two-tiered system. It eliminates caps on profit-sharing checks, which can often be $7,000–$10,000 a year. It grants workers 3–4 percent pay raises in each year of the contract, while not demanding that they pay more for health care.

However, many say that the contract leaves GM workers vulnerable to the threat of precarity, outsourcing, and future two-tiered wage systems. Critically, the pact does not re-open GM’s plant at Lordstown, Ohio—one of the central goals of the strike.

GM’s refusal to re-open Lordstown sent shivers down the spines of workers, fearful that their plants would be shut down. GM declined to give guarantees, present in previous labor agreements, that they wouldn’t close other plants.

In all, three plants will close under the agreement: the Lordstown facility, and parts facilities in Baltimore and Warren, Ohio.

“I couldn’t look myself in the mirror, and I couldn’t look my members in the mirror ever again by supporting it,” Lordstown UAW Local 1112 President Tim O’Hara told Mahoning Matters, in calling for UAW members to vote against the contract.

“This year it’s about Lordstown; the next contract could be about one of the other plants. They’re going to keep building plants in Mexico, in China, in Europe, wherever. Today it’s us, tomorrow it could be somebody else,” said O’Hara.

Indeed, by the end of the strike, GM’s plants in Mexico, where it is the largest auto manufacturer amid recent increased production, were still operating.

Chris Brancato is one of those workers who is scared that his plant could close. It’s expected that his Rochester, New York, plant will stop making an older version of fuel injectors and fuel rail systems around 2021.

“If we don’t have anything else, we can’t stay open with 60 percent of our business down from the fuel injectors and fuel rails,” says Brancato.

Under the proposed deal, workers employed at General Motors Components Holding (GMCH), a subdivision of GM, will be making $6 an hour less than workers at other GM plants. Under the tentative agreement, operators in Rochester, one of four GMCH plants, will see their maximum hourly wage capped at $23 an hour, still $5 an hour less than GMCH employees were making before the auto bailout in 2009.

The contract shortens the period in which new second-tier employees are raised to the first tier, from eight years to four years. However, currently employed GM workers with more than four years of service will have to wait till year 8 to be brought up to the first tier, and top out at $32 an hour.

GM auto parts workers at GMCH will top out at $23 an hour, and GM auto depot workers hired after 2015 will top out at $25 an hour.

In passing the agreement, the UAW touted that they created a pathway for temporary employees to become permanent.

“We went on a strike for a path for temp workers and a fair share of the profits,” said UAW spokesperson Brian Rothenberg at a press conference in Detroit. “The contract gives full-time temp workers a shortened path to permanent status.”

However, that language contains loopholes that management could exploit. Under the tentative agreement, any GM temps employed for more than three continuous years, without a break in employment of more than 30 days, will be made permanent employees beginning in January of 2020. Following 2021, any temp workers with more than two years of continuous service time, without more than a 30-day break, will be made permanent employees.

Many fear, however, that the language stipulating temps not be laid off for more than 30 days could create a loophole, where GM merely lays off workers for more than a month to prevent them from getting to permanent status.

While the contract is less than ideal, General Motors has added a sweetener. If workers vote to ratify the agreement, they will get a signing bonus equal to $11,000 for permanent employees and $4,500 for temporary employees.

Many workers are tempted to accept the bonus and go back to work under a contract that is still seen as an improvement by many. “Any gains are a good thing when the auto industry is on the downswing,” wrote GM worker Jim Morgan on the UAW’s Facebook page.

However, others are urging workers to push on for even more.

“I get it, an $11,000 signing bonus is awesome, especially when you’ve been out for over a month, but if you vote no, you can gain so much more! And be back voting again in a short few weeks with a much better contract,” Bob Mejda of Auburn Hill, Michigan, replied to Morgan on the UAW’s Facebook page.

For workers like Chris Brancato in Rochester, who fear that their plants will close without guarantees in the contract, there is no choice but to continue marching on.

“If we can keep the jobs here instead of Mexico, I’ll go three months without a paycheck, it wouldn’t bother me,” says Brancato. “It wouldn’t bother me one bit if that’s what I have to do to keep my job.”

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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