When General Motors announced plans to trim its work force by as many as 18,000 employees and "unallocate" future product at five North American plants, more than a few people saw it as saber rattling before upcoming UAW contract talks.
Probably with good reason. Few things are more predictable the year before UAW negotiations than a round of belt-tightening by automakers. It's like the bow or curtsy that presages the formal dance number in any movie depicting the Romantic age.
But set GM's announcement — and an expected follow-up from Ford — aside for a moment. There's another problem both the UAW and the Detroit 3 need to deal with quickly if they are going to reach successful conclusions to their contract talks in 2019.
The ongoing corruption investigation involving the UAW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has sown the seeds of mistrust between the union's leadership and its members. And if those seeds take root, any tentative agreement reached next year between a Detroit automaker and the UAW bargaining committee is likely to be rejected by the membership.
Mistrust is a pernicious thing, especially when the lack of faith is between an individual or group and the people directly elected or appointed to represent them (see U.S. Congress, roughly 1789-present).
For UAW members, going into 2019 negotiations will feel like going into a divorce hearing represented by an attorney who happens to be the lifelong best friend of your estranged spouse. You might get a fair and just split of the marital assets, but how could you ever trust that you got the best deal possible?
Automakers have a stake in this as well because if a deal can't get ratified, the chances of a costly work stoppage or worse grow exponentially.
So how to repair the damaged trust between UAW membership and leadership? The only possible solution I can think of is to hold talks in open, direct view of the membership. But that is so hard to do successfully that the UAW would run the risk of not being able to reach a tentative agreement.
I wish both the UAW and the Detroit 3 luck in reaching new contracts in 2019. Because they're gonna need it.