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In this round of UAW talks, a high number of anxious new hires

In 2007, during the UAW’s six-hour strike against Chrysler, I went to interview workers on the picket lines outside one of the company’s plants.

One man turned the tables and started interrogating me. He demanded to know what kind of car I drive, and when I told him a Mini Cooper, he began yelling at other workers to come harass the reporter who owned a non-union car.

A short time later, the same man came up to me and apologized. “I’m sorry, this is my first strike and I got a little worked up,” he told me. “I thought I was supposed to give you a hard time.”

For the rest of that round of contract talks, I drove my wife’s (union-made) Pontiac Vibe, if only to avoid any more confrontations that could make it harder to do my job.

I was reminded of this when looking at some employment numbers for the Detroit 3 this morning, after negotiators at the bargaining table extended the previous contracts past last night’s expiration and shifted the talks into overtime.

Here’s what I noticed: 28 percent of hourly workers at Ford Motor Co. -- 15,029 out of 52,871 -- were hired after Oct. 19, 2011, the date the previous deal was ratified. In other words, nearly three out of every 10 workers currently waiting for either a new deal or an order to go out on strike have never been through a round of UAW talks before.

The percentage is even higher at Fiat Chrysler, though the UAW gives out less detailed data than it does for Ford. Almost 45 percent of FCA’s 37,000 hourly workers are earning Tier 2 wages, with virtually all of those hired in 2010 or later. So figure about 13,000 people there who are new to the negotiation process, plus probably 8,000 at General Motors.

Facebook unfriendly

Some of those nearly 40,000 newbies have been on Facebook the past few weeks, bemoaning the lack of information flowing from the bargaining table.

“How about some info instead of these pictures?” one worker wrote on the “UAW Chrysler Talks” page, after overnight postings showed that negotiators were still at work. “Yeah negotiate and keep us in the dark like pawns,” another added.

Workers at some FCA locations reportedly walked off the job at midnight when there was no word of a deal. The union announced an “hour by hour” extension shortly thereafter.

What the workers new to this process don’t yet realize is that this is how these talks play out every time. Bargaining always goes past the deadline, and little to no information comes out until a tentative deal is reached, sometimes days or weeks later.

In 2007, when GM was the target company, the 2003 contract was extended “hour by hour” for 227 more hours -- about nine and a half days -- before a 40-hour strike led to an agreement. In 2011, the UAW and GM reached a deal almost three days after the last contract was supposed to expire.

In other words, a deal with FCA could be close, or it still could be a while.

What’s new this time is that so many of the workers have never been through it before, creating more uncertainty than usual as they wait for contract details, reassurances or an order to hit the picket lines. The last time that such a large proportion of the membership was new to this process was probably when the UAW was created eight decades ago.

Tensions within the plants already have been rising as the automakers announce multibillion-dollar profits while resisting efforts to eliminate the second-tier wage scale created while they were desperate to avoid bankruptcy.

If there’s a strike, which some analysts have said is all but inevitable at FCA this time around, it will be the first one for a lot of the workers -- a majority at some plants, even. That could result in chaos and disorganization, as workers figure out how strike duty works and grow impatient if a walkout drags on for more than a few days.

After an agreement is reached, the ratification may be less predictable, because no one knows how the newly hired workers will vote. They might be more apathetic and not even participate, or they could swarm the union halls and sway the outcome. In 2011, when there were virtually no Tier 2 workers, fewer than 40 percent of UAW members at some big GM plants even bothered to vote.

The automakers and the UAW have to keep this new dynamic in mind as they hammer out the final details, because regardless of what they agree on at the table, it doesn’t mean anything if workers ultimately vote it down. So while the negotiation process has been following the same old script as usual until now, the rest of the way is when the real drama could happen.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@autonews.com -- Follow Nick on Twitter: @nickbunkley

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