Uncertainty surrounds UAW
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Uncertainty surrounds UAW

Aug 25, 2023

General Motors workers in Fort Wayne and more than 100,000 union auto workers nationwide voted to authorize a strike last week.

To prevent a strike from actually happening, the “big three” major automakers and the United Auto Workers must reach tentative contract agreements by Sept. 14.

Rich LeTourneau is the local bargaining chairman for UAW Local 2209 in Fort Wayne. He says the union is making some big demands, including wage increases over the life of the four-year contract of more than 40 percent.

“I don't see General Motors coming to these demands and agreeing to them by September the 14th,” he said. “I just don't, that's my personal opinion. So it is not ‘if’ we strike, I think it's ‘when’ we strike.”

The companies often point out that UAW autoworkers are paid significantly more than the average worker, including profit-sharing and bonuses. Some, including the union, argue their math is off.

“A lot of people think that we’re under-worked and overpaid. Come and do one of these jobs once, then tell me that,” LeTourneau said. “It's pretty difficult to afford even one of our trucks at $16 an hour, let alone put a roof over your head.”

Other UAW demands include bringing back cost of living adjustments and retiree medical benefits, 32-hour work weeks, and more paid time off.

And the union is seeking to end the two-tier wage system that separates workers based on whether they were hired before 2007 or after.

“Some of our people make $16 an hour and some make $32 an hour,” he said. “It's very difficult to justify that to the people working right next to them on the same job. It's very difficult.”

In a statement, GM argues current union demands “threaten” the company’s “ability to do what’s right for the long-term benefit of the team.”

“I think General Motors has an obligation to fix [the tier system],” LeTourneau said. "But some of the things like pensions for those who don't have a pension, continued legacy costs for retirees. I just don't see them moving on [those demands] because that's one of the things that put them in bankruptcy before.”

The “big three” involved in these negotiations are Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, a company born of a merger between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and a France-based automotive manufacturing company in 2021.

The last four-year contract began in 2019. The union authorized a strike for all three automakers during those negotiations, but it reached a deal with two of them without workers hitting the picket line.

Only General Motors workers ended up striking during those negotiations. The 40-day work stoppage “cost GM more than $2 billion in lost vehicle production,” according to CNBC. The Anderson Economic Group estimates that a 10 day strike at all three companies this time would cost more than $5 billion.

LeTourneau and UAW local 2209 President Holli Murphy said strike assignments have already gone out to make sure workers know what to do on the picket line. Murphy said the Fort Wayne plant’s workers are very experienced with strikes and likely won’t need to practice – even for the newer members.

“We do have a lot of people, this is their first rodeo,” Murphy said. “We have tons that will help them guide them along the way.”

New, self-described “aggressive” UAW international leaders are pledging not to compromise on this contract as previous leaders did in the past. 2209’s LeTourneau, who once ran for international vice president, said the new leaders have a lot to prove to workers.

“There's a lot of promises that have been made in this … campaign for a strike,” he said. "But unfortunately, sometimes the demands turn into expectations.”

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LeTourneau said he is hopeful that UAW’s international leaders will be able to meet the expectations they set in this unusually transparent contract campaign.

He said many of the Fort Wayne facility’s workers support demands the union is making, like bringing back cost of living adjustments and shorter work weeks. But, he said, health care, wages and bringing back pensions are bigger priorities.

“I don't want to exchange cost of living [adjustments] for something that we already have, like profit sharing. If we're going to get it, we'll get them both,” LeTourneau said. “I've done this before and I don't believe [the UAW national negotiating committee is] going to trade one for the other.”

UAW International President Shawn Fain used to work in one of Stellantis’ Kokomo plants, back when it was just owned by Chrysler. He was also born in the city.

In a Facebook live on Aug. 8, Fain threw a contract proposal from Stellantis in the trash, calling it a “slap in the face.” He said the company proposed cuts to workers’ medical coverage, forced overtime, elimination of an outsourcing moratorium and other “concessions,” including allowing the company to adjust the contract without a vote by union members.

Prior to Fain’s Facebook live, the company told Reuters it is "not seeking a concessionary agreement." A copy of the proposals obtained by Reuters “makes many proposals aimed at reducing absenteeism, which the automaker said cost it more than 16,000 vehicles of lost production, or $217 million in lost revenue.”

Stellantis declined an interview request and did not respond to direct questions about the company's proposal and Fain's response to it. However, in a statement, a spokesperson said "discussions between the Company and the UAW’s bargaining team continue to be constructive and collaborative with a focus on reaching a new agreement that balances the concerns of our 43,000 employees with our vision for the future – one that better positions the business to meet the challenges of the U.S. marketplace and secures the future for all of our employees, their families and our company."

Adam is our labor and employment reporter. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB. Contact WBOI's Tony Sandleben at [email protected] or on Twitter at @tony_WBOI.