Dealmaker

How Diana Tremblay got GM to open up with the UAW and reach historic contract

GM's Diana Tremblay is known for her openness in labor negotiations. "We put into place 'no surprises,' " she says. "We just changed the way we dealt with the UAW."
DETROIT — Last September, General Motors shocked the industry when it gave detailed future product plans to the UAW, which promptly made them public. In a business where such plans are kept tightly under wraps, GM's openness was extraordinary.

It was also a key to rank-and-file approval of the groundbreaking 2007 GM-UAW contract. The story of how that came together centers on one player in the negotiations: GM's vice president of labor relations, Diana Tremblay.

Union leaders say Tremblay, who led GM's negotiating team, was pivotal to the agreement. She gave the union more access to financial data than anyone had before, says Cal Rapson, a UAW vice president.

In particular, she pushed top GM executives to release the product plans to the UAW. Union officials say the detailed plans, which specified vehicles assigned to assembly plants, were needed to persuade rank-and-file union members to rewrite GM's wage and benefit structure.

Still, the move riled some top executives. When GM product plans became public, one GM executive was described by an aide as being "apoplectic."

Tremblay admits that her openness cost GM some proprietary information but says it won the company critical concessions.

Tremblay's negotiating strategy came into focus in 2004, when she returned to GM's Detroit headquarters as executive director of North American labor relations. She had been manager of GM's Antwerp, Belgium, assembly plant and hadn't participated in labor talks since 2000.

The GM-UAW deal
In the labor contract negotiated last year
-- The UAW agreed to administer health care benefits for its retirees under a trust called a voluntary employee beneficiary association. The fund took the retiree health care obligation off GM's books.
-- The UAW agreed to a 2-tier wage system in which new production workers are paid less than veteran workers.
-- GM committed to invest in U.S. manufacturing and provided the UAW with future product plans.
-- GM pledged to grant permanent employment to 5,000 temporary workers.

Tremblay's epiphany

So Tremblay took GM's course on labor relations. While playing a union leader in a simulation exercise, she had an epiphany.

"One of the things we asked the company for was the data to show how much trouble the company is in," Tremblay says. "They wouldn't give it to us.

"We're just playing, and they wouldn't share the data with us! I remember how annoyed I was that they'd do that. Just show me where your problems are."

That experience inspired Tremblay's approach — give the union lots of GM data.

The resulting contract is "as historic as the original organizing of the Big 3 by the UAW," says Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The pact is noteworthy because of an agreement for a voluntary employee beneficiary association to pay for retiree health care. Also, the UAW agreed to a two-tier wage system, which will allow new hires at lower wages after higher-wage older workers are bought out.

"This agreement across the Big 3 will save 39,000 jobs in the next three years," McAlinden says.

GM heritage

So who is this 5-foot-2-inch, 48-year-old wife and mother who helped GM strike such a deal with the UAW?

Tremblay has strong GM roots. She grew up in Lordstown, Ohio, a GM factory town. Her father was a GM manufacturing engineer.

Tremblay met her husband, Daniel, while they were attending General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, Mich. After graduation, she went to work for GM's Danville, Ill., foundry. Her husband pursued a master's degree from Purdue University.

So the Tremblays lived in Crawfordsville, Ind., halfway between Purdue and Danville.

"Every morning, I drove one way and he drove another," she recalls. Today Tremblay jokes that the secret to her 27-year marriage is that her husband is "a really good cook."

Over the next 13 years, Tremblay held a variety of manufacturing and engineering jobs in plants in Defiance and Toledo, Ohio; and Pontiac and Saginaw, Mich., before GM summoned her to its corporate offices in Detroit in 1996.

GM was on the cusp of its 1996 UAW negotiations. The automaker wanted employees with plant experience to join its labor staff. GM tapped Tremblay to develop a labor strategy.

Diana Tremblay's career
1977: Joined GM at the Defiance, Ohio, plant of the former Central Foundry division while a student at General Motors Institute, today Kettering University
1982: Graduated from GMI with a bachelor's degree in industrial administration
1982: Named tool engineer and energy engineer at the Danville, IIl., foundry
1983-1996: Held manufacturing and engineering posts with GM's Central Foundry and Powertrain divisions in Defiance and Toledo, Ohio; and Pontiac and Saginaw, Mich.
1996: Appointed director of labor relations for the corporate labor relations staff in Detroit
December 2000: Became manufacturing director of the Vauxhall Motors Ltd. plant in Luton, England
2002: Named manager of GM's Antwerp, Belgium, assembly plant
2004: Returned to the United States as executive director of North American labor relations
January 2006: Named GM vice president of labor relations

'Old-school' mentor

That's when she met one of her mentors — someone she describes as an "old-school labor guy" — Ralph Handley.

"Ralph was viewed as one of the people who would possibly be the hardest for me to work with because he would reject me," Tremblay says. She says her boss at the time, Rick Curd, assigned Handley to mentor her — a move that she says was "clever" because it made Handley responsible for integrating her into the staff.

Handley says his first impression of Tremblay was of a bright, focused person who wanted to learn. He saw personality traits that he knew would make a good leader, such as predictable reactions and stable moods.

Others in GM management noticed Tremblay's talents, too.

"When we went through the 1999 negotiations, I got to see her in action. She just struck me," says Gary Cowger, GM's group vice president of manufacturing and labor relations. "She has excellent judgment."

In 1999, GM began the shift in how it would handle labor relations. The company would be more open with union leaders.

"We put into place 'no surprises'," Tremblay recalls. "We just changed the way we dealt with the UAW."

Once that groundwork was laid, Tremblay longed to return to manufacturing. She left the labor staff in December 2000 to run two assembly plants in Europe. But in 2004, GM called her back to the labor front.

2007 negotiations

By 2005, GM was bleeding cash and headed for financial trouble. Almost as soon as she returned to Detroit, Tremblay jumped on the health care issues to help ease GM's costs. Under her direction, the automaker struck a health care deal with the UAW in 2005 that will save GM $1 billion annually.

That year GM also said it would close eight plants and cut 30,000 jobs to further trim costs. Tremblay carried out all of that and worked on the complex deal with GM's largest auto supplier, Delphi Corp., as the supplier tried to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

But by 2007, with GM's red ink flowing, Tremblay knew she needed to win the mother of all deals.

"I really felt that if we didn't make some significant changes, it was just a question of how long we would last," she says. "Three years? Five years? I really believed we needed to make significant changes."

Different times

The bargaining began July 23 with Tremblay and the UAW's Rapson at the table. Both knew the importance of the talks. Tremblay says she remained calm and focused. Rapson recalls long hours but open dialogue.

"She was key in those negotiations," Rapson says. "She was steady, her moods didn't get too high or too low. A few times we got fussing with each other, but we learned to resolve it."

But on Sept. 24, the union still did not have a product plan from GM that would ensure jobs, Rapson says. So it went on strike.

"When we came back a couple of days later, the company was there working on a commitment to product with us," Rapson says. The two sides quickly agreed on a deal.

On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 27, Rapson met with local plant presidents and chairmen and passed out copies of the tentative deal. He recalls silence as a heavy mood set in.

"They looked at that page and saw the commitment to product, and that changed the meeting," Rapson says. "It was a real positive and productive meeting. You could see the immediate relief."

Tremblay called the subsequent release of the detailed product plan "the downside of being really transparent." It is her only real regret, but she says that to get the agreement ratified, UAW leaders needed specifics about the future work going to plants.

"If I could do that one over again, I probably would have encouraged a little less detail — not in the agreement as such but a little less detail in the communications that went out," Tremblay says. "But those were the documents we signed, so it is what it is." 

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com

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