GM workers can credit FCA rank and file for UAW's 'transformative' deal

David Barkholz covers labor for Automotive News.

UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada will reveal details Wednesday of a tentative four-year deal with General Motors that she is describing as “transformative.”

GM’s 52,600 hourly workers ultimately will be the judge of how well they like the transformation when they vote up or down to ratify it in the coming days.

But if by “transformative” Estrada means that the GM agreement ends the divisive two-tier wage system by providing workers with a stepped, eight-year pathway to full pay, then credit goes to the rank and file at Fiat Chrysler, not the UAW leadership.

It was FCA’s 40,000 workers who rejected a deal between UAW President Dennis Williams and FCA that promised entry-level workers big raises but left intact Tier 2 by failing to provide a grow-in to full pay.

They resoundingly said no to the first tentative deal with FCA and sent Williams back to the drawing board, despite FCA pleas that it could afford no more give on the contract.

Lo and behold, FCA found the money this month, on the eve of a threatened strike, to gradually bring Tier 2 workers up to full $30 an hour legacy pay after eight years. FCA was OK with the contract because much of the additional money goes in during years five through eight, after the current deal expires.

Except for rank-and-file rancor, the UAW leadership would have been happy to settle for the lesser deal, even originally selling it to the locals as a strong contract. GM workers and eventually Ford Motor Co. workers will be the beneficiaries of the resolve shown by their counterparts at FCA.

UAW leadership should be thanking FCA workers for what they’ve done on the organizing front, as well.

As I noted in an earlier blog, the economic improvements in the FCA package, including big signing bonuses and nice wage increases for legacy workers, show a better face of the UAW to workers at non-union U.S. factories operated by the German, Japanese and Korean automakers.

For 10 years, those workers have seen a backpedaling, concessionary UAW with little to offer them. The UAW has failed miserably at organizing the transplants, including most recently at Volkswagen in Tennessee. In the FCA workers this year, they saw people willing to strike and exercise their democratic right to reject a contract they didn’t like.

Sure enough, the UAW last week announced that it had filed to organize maintenance workers at Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga assembly plant, just one day after FCA workers approved their deal and 11 days after I noted the increased organizing power the new contract had wrought.

Interestingly, the UAW said as recently as May that it would not fight another organizing drive at VW Chattanooga on the grounds that VW could voluntarily recognize the union as the bargaining unit for plant hourly workers.

If the FCA contract helps the UAW organize workers at the transplants, it would truly be transformative.

You can reach Dave Barkholz at dbarkholz@crain.com

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