TOLEDO, Ohio -- Meet Nick Thielen, the last UAW-represented production worker in America hired at full Tier 1 pay and benefits.
A machine operator at Fiat Chrysler Automobile's Dundee Engine Plant in Dundee, Mich., Thielen was hired on June 27, 2011, when almost all other Detroit 3 plants were hiring only Tier 2 entry-level workers at about half the pay and benefits of Tier 1 workers.
Thielen, who counts himself fortunate to have a Tier 1 job, embodies one of the thorniest issues in this year's national contract talks. Now, along with the rest of the 138,000 UAW-represented workers at the Detroit 3, he is watching closely to see how the union and automakers resolve that issue: how to get Tier 2 workers on a path to full pay.
Interviewed in late August at a restaurant in his native Toledo, Thielen said he is fortunate to be working 50-hour weeks at a wage of $30.50 per hour. At the Dundee plant alone, nearly 200 co-workers hired after him earn slightly more than half that.
Thielen is watching the UAW negotiations with the Detroit 3 in hopes the union can raise Tier 2 wages to those of veteran workers -- ideally in one swoop, but if that's not possible, at least over time.
The UAW's four-year contracts with the Detroit 3 expire Sept. 14.
"I'm definitely grateful that I got in when I did and for the opportunity I have," Thielen, 33, said. "But also I realize [that] the dynamic of two different wages working side by side creates a level of tension and unfairness."
Before bargaining started in earnest after July 4, UAW President Dennis Williams vowed he would "bridge the gap" between Tier 1 and Tier 2 pay.
It's a hotly contested issue, along with jobs, a raise for veteran workers and whether health care costs can be controlled by pooling active-worker plans.
For their part, the Detroit 3 are trying to keep raises limited to profit-sharing and overall labor cost increases at about the rate of inflation.