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FCA deal finally gives UAW an organizing carrot

A byproduct of the rich new deal that UAW workers demanded of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles -- and their own leaders -- is that the UAW finally has something worthwhile to sell to employees at nonunion U.S. transplants.

Since 2004, the UAW has been retreating on wages and benefits (except health care) at the Detroit 3. This while imploring workers at Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota and BMW to come under the union’s protective blanket.

Rightfully, nonunion workers at the companies have had serious doubts about the UAW’s value proposition to them or, to put it in autoworker vernacular, “What’s in it for me, Jack?”

The answer was almost embarrassing because the past decade has been one of givebacks, no wage increases, the advent of the two-tier wage scale, consolidation of job classifications, alternative work schedules and concessions on retiree health care.

With that track record, UAW organizers trying to win over deeply suspicious workers at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Nissan in Canton, Miss., and elsewhere were left mumbling pabulum.

Come join us so you can have a place at the table, participate in plant governance and shape your own future. Yay! Scintillating, right?

Makes you want to just run out and risk good wages, safe working conditions and a nice career track for that.

Through the sheer will of the rank-and-file at FCA, though, the business case for organizing the transplants is about to change.

The contract that FCA workers just demanded -- despite the efforts of Sergio Marchionne and UAW President Dennis Williams to first feed them a mediocre one -- can play well anywhere, including the Right-to-Work South.

It includes wage increases and ratification bonuses to get the attention of transplant workers. It leaves intact one of the richest company-paid health care plans in industrial America. It tackles weird shift schedules.

And it ends the divisive two-tier wage scale over eight years, promising full legacy pay of $30 an hour for all of FCA’s 18,000 entry-level workers over that time.

The latter should be of keen interest to workers at the transplants given that those factories tend to use temporaries -- sometimes for years without being hired -- to a far greater degree than the Detroit 3.

With its new portfolio of wages and benefits (FCA’s 40,000 workers are expected to ratify the agreement when they vote Oct. 20-21), the UAW now at least has a case to make for unionization.

If FCA workers hadn’t stood up to UAW leadership they would have come away with a lesser contract.

Williams and his staff worked hard to convince the FCA rank-and-file that their first tentative agreement was a good one before 65 percent of voting members turned it down.

It contained no path to full wages and, left unchecked, would have in four years reset the prevailing wage at the Detroit 3 at $25 an hour instead of the proposed $30 an hour under the revised agreement.

Moreover, FCA didn’t commit to future vehicle plans under the first tentative agreement. Those commitments, a hallmark of previous UAW deals, are in the latest accord.

There are other improvements, too, that originally FCA deemed too expensive until the UAW readied a strike that would have cost FCA $1 billion a week in lost production. Suddenly, FCA was able to afford the additional costs.

In the end, workers insisted on big new compensation in a way that showed they were willing to stare down an employer and their own leadership to fix a two-tier inequity that they reviled.

That strength in solidarity is a whole lot more attractive to unorganized workers than concessions and worker-rights drivel.

Williams and other UAW leaders should thank the FCA workers for that.

You can reach David Barkholz at dbarkholz@crain.com -- Follow David on Twitter: @barkholzatan

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