New UAW contract at GM Kokomo worth a look at bargaining convention

David Barkholz covers labor issues for Automotive News.

Truth be told, UAW special bargaining conventions like the one that kicks off Tuesday in Detroit are typically long on windy speeches and light on negotiating specifics.

So here’s a modest proposal to spice up this year’s event: debate the merits of an interesting local UAW agreement ratified last week at General Motors’ parts plant in Kokomo, Ind.

What sets this contract apart is that the local contract doesn’t take effect, including a pay cut for skilled trades workers, until GM brings additional work into the plant in the form of a signed contract with a big new customer.

“No work, no competitive operating agreement,” was the rallying cry of UAW Local 292 negotiators. Recently, it’s been the other way around, with employers making the demands: “No concessions, no new work.”

The convention marks the unofficial start of UAW contract talks with the Detroit 3. The union’s current four-year contracts expire in September.

The GM plant in Kokomo makes electronic vehicle components, including computer wafers and circuit boards. It was one of five parts plants that GM bought back from Delphi Corp. when the giant supplier exited bankruptcy in 2009.

Jobs have been leaking from the plant since the 2005 Delphi bankruptcy. Whereas it once had 1,700 workers, hourly employment today is about 725.

The UAW-identified customer, electronics maker IXYS Corp. of Milpitas, Calif., could double plant use and prompt the hiring of 100 people. The plant posted revenue of about $400 million in 2010.

So why bring this to the floor of the UAW convention? Because the Detroit 3 typically make lots of job and future product promises as part of cementing master contracts with the union.

But how well those promises are kept is a mixed bag. They are promises after all, not shelf agreements like those negotiated by the UAW local in Kokomo.

In 2007, GM made “unprecedented product and investment commitments” to get the rank and file to accept a wage freeze and the offloading of retiree health care benefits into a UAW-administered trust.

Two of the plants promised specific future products, truck plants Pontiac (Mich.) and Janesville (Wis.), closed in 2009. A third, Spring Hill (Tenn.), is idled but on standby in the hope that it may again be needed.

What turned out to be unprecedented was the auto crisis that landed GM and Chrysler in bankruptcy in 2009.

With its recent profitability, better times appear ahead for GM. But a little UAW local in Kokomo has shown that it’s OK to demand real job guarantees from GM, not just promises.

At the very least, union reps gathered in Detroit will want to know what happens this time if promises aren’t kept and whether there can be penalties for broken commitments.

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