By Thomas Michalak
For over a month United Auto Workers (UAW) members employed by General Motors have been on a countrywide strike after a breakdown at the negotiation table between the union and the company. The strike was the first of its kind in the industry for decades and involved nearly 50,000 workers. On October 17, the UAW bargaining committee announced a tentative contract agreement. However, the strike is continuing subject to ratification by the membership. As of the time of writing this article, the details of the agreement are not yet completely clear. However highlights of the deal have been released to the public.
GM Retreats from Most Onerous Concession Demands
Initially what GM was asking the UAW to swallow that led to eventual strike action was an increase in the membership paying into their healthcare benefits and a minuscule wage increase that would not even come close to offsetting the costs of healthcare. This would effectively amount to a decrease in take home pay for every worker. GM originally was also reportedly unwilling to bend on their excessive use of “temporary” employees. These workers are used more or less on a full time basis, though with little security in their jobs or benefits, and with no clear path to full employment. In addition, the corporation seemed intent on maintaining a two tier wage scale, where full-production workers hired after 2007 would never earn a comparable wage to higher seniority workers.
It appears that at least based on what has been announced publicly, GM has yielded somewhat to many of the basic demands of the UAW. It is claimed that there are to be no alterations to the current arrangement concerning the costs of healthcare, a major sticking point for the rank-and-file.
There is a timeline laid out concerning the transition of “temporary” workers into full time status, based on whether they have been employed by GM for a “continuous” three-year period. Additionally, the UAW itself is to have a larger role to play in terms of how “temporary” labor is allocated.
Contract Leaves Opening for Continued Use of Temporary Workers
However, many rank and file workers are pointing out that based on GM’s history in the use of temporary workers, the continuous employment factor to become full-time workers will serve as a means for the corporation to maintain its temporary workforce. Temporary workers attain no seniority rights, so they are subject to lay-off and arbitrary recall by the company. Many workers have already been on temporary status for 8 and 9 years, working for a year or two, getting laid off for a year, and then recalled as a temp. The current contract does not address this major loophole.
Gains for Second Tier Workers Tempered by Lack of Wage Progress for All UAW Members
Most relevant to myself as well as others hired after the introduction of a “two tier” system across the industry, is following through with what was agreed to four years ago at the signing of the 2015 contract: the eventual increase in our wages to the capped rate after a period of eight years. As it currently stands, for those of us hired following the introduction of the two tier system, it is fairly common for people doing the same jobs as one another to make vastly different wages. This is a system that is antithetical to the UAW’s history of fighting in the defense of equal pay for equal work. The new contract does seem to attain the elimination of the wage differentiation between first and second tier workers by the end of the contract in 2023.
However, in contrast to the UAW history of winning three per cent wage hikes every year, along with cost of living increases added to the base wage, the new contract continues the practice of the 2015 contract of only giving 3% wage increases in two of the four years of the contract with no cost of living. Instead, workers are awarded performance bonuses in the other two years. Thus in essence, given the stagnant hikes in the base wage, the new contract in reality amounts to not the elimination of tier two, but rather an elimination of tier one wages.
In addition, the current second tier workers and future employees, do not receive a pension, which was eliminated for all employees hired after 2007 in the 2015 contract (we only get a 401K which the employer does contribute to). 30 and out pensions were always a hallmark of the UAW contracts. Their elimination was a huge concession that has not been won back in the current contract.
Also, thousands of GM Workers hired after 2015 at the GMCH (General Motors Components and Holdings) and CCA (Customer Care and Aftersales) divisions, covered under the contract, have their earnings capped at $22.50 and $25.00 hours respectively, considerably under the $32.32 cap for production workers. And UAW members now employed by Aramark performing maintenance jobs formerly covered under the UAW/GM contract, and who just settled their strike also, continue to earn about $10 per hour less than GM workers along with diminished health benefits.
New Contract Silent on Winning Job Security for Future Employment
What is most significant in the tentative contract agreement is that while Terry Dittes, UAW Vice President and head of bargaining, stated that job security was the issue underpinning the strike, the new contract does virtually nothing to address the issue.
The contract allows three of the four plant closings that were announced in November 2018, in blatant violation of the Moratorium on Plant Closings in the last agreement, to go forward. The GM’s Lordstown Ohio assembly, Warren, MI and Baltimore, MD plants will remain shuttered. Only the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly Plant will remain open with a new electric product line.
In addition, as a prelude to the strike, Mary Barra, GM CEO announced that the corporation fully intended to transition to primarily electric car and autonomous vehicle production. A document published by the UAW, and shared on the UAW Real Talk, GM, Ford and Chrysler group Facebook page, states that as many as 35,000 UAW members’ jobs are at risk as conventional automobiles are replaced by electric vehicles.
The UAW leadership solution to this production shift, which threatens the very future of the membership, is to call for a powerless “National Committee on Advanced Technology, made up of an equal number of union and management representatives.”
Bonuses Offered to Induce Ratification
What may stand out most in the agreement is the offer of a lump sum bonus of $12,000 to employees upon signing. Some consider this as an alluring way to get people, who may live check to check, to perhaps overlook the shortcomings of a contract in the interest of short term gain.
Use the Momentum of Strike to Build a Rank and File Movement to Demand that Workers Control and Benefit from the Technology of the Future
It remains to be seen if the contract will be ratified as is, or if the strike will continue. But either way, the active participation of so many workers in the strike signaled a revival of auto worker militancy and struggle. It was the first strike and union action of any kind for the thousands of younger UAW members who have joined in the past few years. The strike had a galvanizing effect on the working class in general. Fellow workers expressed solidarity with the strikers by joining the picket lines, through economic support from workers and even small businesses, and t by the deafening honking that greeted the picketers by passing cars,
The task now is for this new generation of UAW workers to revive demands such as short work week, guaranteed lifetime jobs, 30 and out pensions for all, and an enforceable Moratorium on Plant Closings to stop outsourcing. These demands that are the real answer to the companies’ intentions to further decimate the future workforce the auto industry and all across the economy. The workers who produce all the wealth should be the beneficiaries of the new technology which their labor has paid for, The rank and file must organize to fight to insure that the benefits of this new technology go to the workers and community, not to enhance the profits of the bosses. These demands will not be won by “joint management-labor committees”, but only through the revival of the militant class struggle unionism upon which the UAW was founded.
Thomas Michalak is a second tier auto worker at FCA with 5 years seniority