Is Solidarity Forever? Proposed UAW Contract Fails to Meet Worker Expectations

by Dianne Feeley

September 24, 2015

NOTE ON OCTOBER 2nd: Since this article was published, Chrysler workers turned down the contract by a resounding 65% NO vote. The big issue was the fact that had this agreement passed tiered wages would continue, and even expand. UAW officials are still trying to figure out what to do next.

Autoworker expectations for the 2015 UAW/Big Three contracts were to end the lower-tier wage that the union agreed first agreed to in 2007, at the time of the economic crisis. Over the last decade the higher-tier workers lost four dollars an hour to inflation and have been looking for a raise, and perhaps a restoration of the Cost-of-Living-Adjustment (COLA) that had been suspended. In many Chrysler plants workers had been forced into Alternative Work Schedules that are particularly brutal for those with less seniority, with rotating shifts or regularly scheduled weekend shifts. Skilled trades workers had been forced into covering broader categories of work without the necessary training. They wanted the companies to restore apprenticeship training programs.

The top priority was to end two-tier wages and benefits, arguing that it undermines on-the-job solidarity. As one of the Autoworker Caravan leaflets put it, “Two tier fosters an ‘us and them’ mentality on the plant floor. The companies have a built in divide-and-conquer spiral to poverty wages for not only autoworkers but all manufacturing workers….It is time to cut this cancer out of our contracts.”

Negotiations began over the summer, but even at the Detroit Labor Day Parade UAW President Dennis Williams held his cards close to his chest. He did reassure marchers that the tentative agreement would “bridge the gap” between the two tiers. This was troubling because the union had regained the right to strike, which it gave up at General Motors and Chrysler as part of its “shared sacrifice” during their bailouts. But now the companies were flush. If the union did not force an end to two-tier in 2015, when would there be a more auspicious moment?

About 30 young, and mostly second-tier, workers from Chrysler Jefferson North’s plant demonstrate on September 23rd in front of the UAW Solidarity House after an informational meeting. Photo by Judy Wraight.

The UAW Bargaining Committee usually selects one company during the final stages of negotiation, and the resulting tentative agreement becomes the basic pattern for the other two. Expecting that the target company would be either Ford or General Motors, workers were caught off guard when Williams announced, just a week before the old contract expired, that Fiat Chrysler Association (FCA) was the target. As the smallest of the Big Three, FCA also has the greatest number of second-tier workers. Overall 45% of the workforce is two tier, but in some plants the percentage is much higher.

When the old contract expired on September 14, 2015 the companies and union agreed to extend it and negotiations between the UAW team and CEO Sergio Marchionne continued another day, when they announced an agreement. Unlike the other CEOs, Marchionne had always maintained two tier wasn’t viable, but argued that there should be something in between. The proposed agreement offers a variation on his wish. Those hired before 2007 would continue at the higher wage, and even earn $1.11 an hour more in four years. These workers would essentially be “grandfathered.” As they retired, the wage rate and corresponding benefits would disappear.

By the end of the agreement second-tier workers, now renamed “in-progression” employees, could reach an hourly wage of somewhere between $22.00 and $25.35, depending on their job title. Axle workers would top out at $20 and parts depot workers at $22. It would take seven years to reach the top wage, still placing them well below the “traditional” worker. This contract enshrines second-tier wages and benefits as the new standard!

Additionally, the tentative agreement rejects the previous understanding that there would be a “cap” on the percentage of workers hired at the lower tier. In fact the tentative deal eliminates the concept of caps and introduces more tiers. There is no cap on temporary part-timers, who make less (and have no job security). There is no mention of a defined pension, as those “grandfathered” have. COLA has been discarded; absentee policies remain draconian, skilled trades consolidation continues to move ahead. Alternative Work Schedules have not been modified–although those assigned to crews that regularly work weekends will earn a bit more. However nothing addresses problems AWS causes to workers’ health or family life.

Discussion on the shop floor, at informational union meetings, on autoworker lists and facebook pages reveals how betrayed workers feel. But as UAW officials, making the rounds of the Chrysler locals for informational meetings, reply, “Well you can’t get everything.”

But what’s in the contract that is an improvement? One holiday—Easter Monday—has been restored. Those scheduled to work weekends will earn time and a quarter for Saturday and double time for Sunday. If they desire, members can take their vacation time in one-day increments. Retirees are now entitled to a $1,000 car voucher. Legal aid is reinstated for both workers and retirees. The $1,500 a year scholarship program for dependent children will be reinstated. Changes in health care are vague. This from a company that made $2.75 billion in profits last year! Sweetening the contract, as usual, are bonuses—a $3,000 signing bonuses and some possibilities of profit-sharing bonuses. As I always say, “the larger the bonus, they more they are stealing from your wallet.”

While the agreement talks about a $5.3 billion investment in U.S. plants, Chrysler wants to move small car production to Mexico, where workers make less than $10 an hour, and use U.S. plants for SUVs and trucks. The company makes more profit on these gas-guzzlers, but why should autoworkers give up products? We need to encourage innovation by demanding the reorganization of manufacturing, for urgent environmental reasons, to mass transit and lower-emission trucks and cars.

Why would anyone vote yes on this agreement? Because they will be intimidated by UAW officials, who always say, “Be glad you still have a job” or “You won’t have a product in your plant if you vote no.” Voting starts today and will be over by the end of next week. There is a chance that the tentative contract will be voted down, but the problem is that those who negotiated this one–and who boast that they have “taken a thoughtful and strategic approach to addressing this inequality” (two tier) and see the agreement as “innovative”—are the same ones who would negotiate the next version.

Most Chrysler workers will only get a chance to read the contract summary, which you can find online here. The entire contract is online here.

With the ratification of a Chrysler contract, negotiations at Ford and General Motors will be next up. With the bar potentially set so low, the UAW officials might raise it at GM and Ford and call it a better contract. Thus there really won’t be a “pattern” contract at the Big Three! As a result, there would be even greater inequality among autoworkers. Will autoworkers be willing to strike for a decent contract? After all, GM’s profits were $6.5 billion in 2014, Ford’s were $6.3 billion and even Chrysler’s were almost three billion. Stay tuned!

Dianne Feeley is a retired autoworker active in Autoworker Caravan. She is an editor of Against the Current and a member of Solidarity.