Why next year's GM-UAW handshake promises to be strikingly different

Cindy Estrada, third from left, and other UAW officials ushered in a new executive team, including a new president, Dennis Williams, center, at the union's constitutional convention this week in Detroit.

Next year, negotiators for the Detroit 3 and the UAW will hammer out new labor contracts.

The talks will be unique. For the first time in history, the hands that reach across the negotiation table for General Motors and the UAW will each belong to a woman.

The UAW this week assigned Vice President Cindy Estrada to head its GM department, a UAW spokeswoman confirmed. While GM CEO Mary Barra won’t lead GM’s negotiation team, she is likely to follow her male predecessors’ tradition and appear for a ceremonial handshake at the start. And she would ultimately approve any deal reached.

The idea that the fate of the patriarchal UAW and the oft-dubbed ‘good ol’ boys’ automaker rests in the hands of two women is a jarring juxtaposition that’s monumental on many layers.

It is historic, and the women will face increased scrutiny by the mere fact that they are women in a traditionally male-dominated capacity.

But their gender might bring with it a different point of view, making it an opportunity to reach concessions by trying new tactics. Take, for example, what GM’s Diana Tremblay did in 2007.

Tremblay was GM’s vice president of labor relations then. She won the trust of the UAW negotiators by giving them more access to financial data than anyone had prior, Cal Rapson, then a UAW vice president, said at the time.

In particular, she pushed top GM executives to share future product plans with the UAW. Union officials said those 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. In a business where such plans are kept tightly under wraps, GM’s openness was extraordinary. And it was a key to rank-and-file approval of the groundbreaking 2007 GM-UAW contract.

I covered those talks and remember some GM top brass were said to be apoplectic when the UAW promptly leaked many of those product plans to the press. Still, GM got its deal because Tremblay dared to be a groundbreaker. Her practice was so successful it was adopted by Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group in their 2011 negotiations.

Estrada is the first Hispanic to be elected a UAW vice president, and she will be the first woman to lead talks with a Detroit 3 automaker.

Barra is the first woman to run a carmaker.

So both are already groundbreakers.

They’ll have much to talk about, including the existing two-tier wage structure, which is wildly unpopular among the UAW’s rank and file.

Let’s see if their leadership at these talks will be groundbreaking, too.

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com -- Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jlareauan



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