DETROIT -- As billions of dollars in profits pile up for the Detroit 3, so does resentment within the UAW toward the two-tier wage system that has helped produce those profits.
The issue, a source of controversy since the UAW reluctantly agreed to a two-tier system in 2007 amid plant closures and layoffs, is shaping up to be the centerpiece of next year's contract talks. Workers contend that the automakers now can afford to pay top-tier wages to everyone. But the companies say any material increase to labor costs risks landing them in financial trouble again.
"From the union's perspective it was never meant to be permanent because it challenges the central principle of the union, which is broad solidarity," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "They will seek to resolve it in a reasonable way in the next round of negotiations."
UAW leaders have become more vocal about their opposition to two-tier wages as the next round of negotiations draws closer. A vice presidential candidate, Norwood Jewell, said the UAW's international executive board "hates two-tier" and wants to eliminate it. Dennis Williams, whom UAW leaders have nominated to succeed Bob King as president in June, was cheered at a UAW conference in Washington this month for saying that he doesn't believe in two-tier wages and that "it's time to bridge the gap" they create.
King told Automotive News last month: "Everybody that I know in the UAW -- myself, Dennis Williams, all the officers -- everybody has said that we believe in equal pay for equal work. We did the entry level because it was necessary to keep the companies viable."