Labor, UAW — October 7, 2015 at 7:29 am

The UAW’s Contract Fight Is About to Get Ugly


Yesterday, the United Auto Workers notified Fiat-Chrysler US (FCA) that if a new tentative bargaining agreement is not reached by 11:59PM tonight (Wednesday, October 7th) they’ll call a strike. Workers at all of the Detroit Three automakers have been working under temporary contract extensions since their previous agreement expired September 14. The UAW targeted Fiat-Chrysler for early negotiations and reached a tentative deal early on the morning of September 15, but the UAW’s rank-and-file torpedoed that agreement last week, as a 65% majority voted it down.

Sticking points in the negotiations include a two-tiered wage system introduced while the automakers were struggling back in 2007 and a “flex” scheduling system currently in place at FCA. The flex scheduling means workers end up working four ten-hour days per week, and then
their schedules can swing from early morning shifts to late evening shifts in a matter of a few days. These shifts allow FCA to keep plants running longer on straight-time wages, hours that used to be overtime under the previous contract. Fiat-Chrysler has also benefited the most from the two-tiered wage system, as it has expanded production greatly over the past couple of years. Approximately 40% of Fiat-Chrysler workers are new employees on the bottom tier of the system, compared to around 20% of workers at Ford and GM.

I took a stroll through the comments on some of these articles (something I rarely do), and the emerging consensus seems to be that workers thought these concessions they made during the financial crisis of 2007-2009 would be temporary and would be negotiated away when times were good again. Times are good again, with FCA pulling in $700 million in profit last year and vehicle production hitting record levels. In short, the UAW’s not playing games anymore.

The last time UAW workers struck the Detroit Three was in 1998, when targeted strikes at two GM plants in Flint brought production at the entire company to a standstill for 54 days. Word on the street is that a targeted strike at an FCA transmission plant in Kokomo, Indiana could have a similar effect and bring FCA to its knees without crippling the entire UAW workforce. Striking workers are paid a strike benefit and a healthcare allowance from the UAW’s strike fund, but workers otherwise idled by a strike are eligible for unemployment benefits. Still, UAW President Dennis Williams has indicated that the strike threat is company-wide, not just for the transmission plant in Kokomo.

The UAW’s management is not off the hook here, either. There has been significant criticism leveled against UAW leaders, who made a good show of being jovial and friendly with the Detroit Three’s negotiating team. The rank-and-file at FCA appear to be spoiling for a fight to win back the concessions they made eight years ago. For his part, UAW Local 1302 President George Maus at the Kokomo plant says he believes his workers “understand solidarity” and will walk off the job Wednesday night if asked to do so.

It’s going to be a long week, folks.