UAW members send another loud message to their leadership

At a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, more than 3,000 union members at Nexteer Automotive in mid-Michigan made a stunning show of solidarity this week. Solidarity against the people running their union, that is.

The UAW’s proposed contract with Nexteer went down in flames so huge that the local fire department is probably still sifting through the rubble. It got 80 “yes” votes.

Not 80 percent -- 80 people. Out of 3,183.

That’s even accounting for seven UAW Local 699 elected officials who signed the agreement and who, assuming they voted, represented 9 percent of the “yes” ballots all by themselves.

Somehow, 97 percent of workers, many of whom survived the dysfunction of the old General Motors and Delphi Automotive, didn’t just tell Nexteer’s new Chinese owners, “No”; they shouted -- and this is highly technical union terminology -- “Hell, no.”

I don’t even know that Donald Trump would lose in such staggering fashion if he ran for president of Pakistan this week.

There are two plausible explanations: Either the UAW’s bargaining team couldn’t get Nexteer to budge any further without a strong mandate from the rank and file, which it definitely has now, or the negotiators were completely out of touch with their membership.

Based on the comments posted to the Local 699 Facebook page (“I think everyone who was at the bargaining table should be fired,” one worker wrote), many are convinced it’s the latter.

It’s hard to imagine that the UAW would put an agreement this widely hated to a vote unless they knew it would fail. But there’s so far been no indication in any public statements from the union. And if union leaders did underestimate their members’ anger and willingness to take a stand, it would be the third time in the past three months.

UAW members at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles soundly rejected a deal in September, forcing the parties back to the table for a revised agreement that later passed. It was the first time since 1982 that the union’s membership turned down a national agreement. The union’s deal with Ford Motor Co. was careening toward failure until the leadership worked overtime scrounging for “yes” votes at the last big local to vote.

All three cases have appeared to worsen rifts within the membership, undoubtedly making many workers question the benefits they’re getting in return for the (recently increased) dues being deducted from their paychecks.

At FCA, workers watched their counterparts at Ford and General Motors get a much richer signing bonus and profit-sharing formula. At Ford, 49 percent of workers are now bound by a contract they voted against. And Nexteer workers spent the day on the picket lines after the UAW decided to call a strike.

With Michigan and other union-heavy states recently passing right-to-work laws that allow workers to opt out if they’re dissatisfied, this is a critical time for the UAW.

The union needs to bring its members together -- even as their increasingly profitable employers play hardball -- before they start to view their own leadership as the enemy, too.

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

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