DETROIT -- The United Auto Workers union will seek to negotiate a contract with General Motors this fall as a template for talks with Detroit's two other automakers, setting up a confrontation with a company that has angered workers with plans to idle four U.S. factories.
The UAW leadership made the decision, spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.
Factory workers have said they feel angry and mistreated by the company since GM's announcement of plant reductions in November.
"Mary Barra said from the outset of these talks that we will stand up [together] as we tackle a changing industry. We are ready to stand strong for our future," UAW President Gary Jones said in a statement Tuesday, referring to the GM chairwoman and chief executive officer.
"We look forward to having constructive discussions with the UAW on reaching an agreement that builds a strong future for our employees and our business," said a statement from David Barnas, a GM spokesman.
The UAW, which represents nearly 150,000 hourly workers at Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, also said workers at each local of all three companies have voted to authorize a strike: 95.98% approval at Ford, 96.4% at GM and 96% at Fiat Chrysler.
The strike authorization is procedural and routine, part of the bargaining process that happens every four years when a new national contract is being negotiated. The current pact expires Sept. 14.
"The vote does not mean there will or will not be a strike. It gives authority to the UAW international president and international executive board to call for a strike," the UAW said.
"No one goes into collective bargaining taking a strike lightly," Jones said. "Clearly the UAW stood up for them in a very dark time," a reference to concessions from the union when GM and Fiat Chrysler predecessor Chrysler were forced into bankruptcy 10 years ago and bailed out by the U.S. government. "Now that they are profitable, it is time for them to stand up for all of us," the union said.
The national UAW contract talks carry extra drama this year. Union leadership is under a cloud because of a corruption investigation that last week led to FBI and Internal Revenue Service raids at Jones' suburban Detroit home, the California home of Jones' predecessor, Dennis Williams, and two other UAW sites.
The scandal, previously centered on misspent millions meant to help workers through the union's joint training center with Fiat Chrysler, has led to nine charged and eight guilty pleas, with the latest charge touching UAW-GM operations and contract kickbacks.
Privately, people close to contract negotiations said the union had been leaning toward negotiating with Ford first because the company is perceived as more friendly to workers. No one expected GM to get a pass, but going first is a totally different strategy.
"The UAW chose to take on its toughest target first to set the standard for the industry," said Harley Shaiken, a University of California, Berkeley professor who talks frequently with labor and industry leaders as a national analyst.
He added, "The UAW has embraced a tough, strategic focus indicating that it doesn't intend to skip a beat in these critical negotiations whatever the innuendo and unfounded allegations that have emerged in recent days."
In November, GM said it would idle the Lordstown assembly plant in Ohio, the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, and transmission plants in Warren, Mich., and near Baltimore, affecting about 2,800 U.S. hourly jobs. The plants are now closed except Detroit-Hamtramck, which is operating until January, and whose future is sure to be a topic of the talks.
The company also cut about 4,000 nonunion white-collar workers and closed its Oshawa Assembly plant in Ontario, Canada. The restructuring plan will save GM up to $2.5 billion this year, the company said.
"Although I am surprised the UAW picked GM as the target, it makes some sense. The UAW will have the most public perception support due to the high-profile plant closings," said market economist Jon Gabrielsen, who advises automakers and suppliers.
The current UAW contract with the three Detroit automakers was hammered out in 2015 without a strike.
But Fiat Chrysler workers are angry that the company has been profitable and that they sacrificed during the recession and Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy. UAW members are also upset with union leadership about the scandal involving millions of dollars siphoned from the union and company's joint training center.
Some in the Fiat Chrysler rank and file don't want Jones overseeing contract talks now, though the union has rejected that notion, saying it has cooperated with the investigation and the use of search warrants last week was grandstanding.
"He should step down during bargaining," said Kenneth Mefford, a UAW member who works for Fiat Chrysler's Warren Truck Assembly plant.
Mefford said he and co-workers are frustrated too because local union leaders have not given workers an indication of what a tentative contract might contain.
"We have no idea what we'll be voting on in two weeks and most of the hierarchy is under federal investigation," said Mefford. "If you've been served or summoned, for the good of everybody, step down."
Business on 09/04/2019
Print Headline: Union makes GM its first contract goal