General Motors' decision to sue Fiat Chrysler over the UAW bribery scandal carries a novel argument — and most certainly the first to claim unfair treatment by way of union corruption. But its timing feels more like payback than a search for justice, and the wrangling is likely to end up hurting both automakers.
In the UAW's history of pattern bargaining, every automaker longs to set the pattern. It's usually a competitive advantage. GM argues that FCA bribed the UAW to go first in 2015. There is now ample evidence that might be true. But it seems a legal long shot that GM can tie direct causality from those actions to the results of its own bargaining and performance under the contract it negotiated. After all, GM was under no obligation to accept the pattern set by FCA. It was free to demand its own deal and take whatever steps it deemed necessary to reach it.
The timing of the suit seems designed to inflict the maximum imposition on FCA. It complicates FCA's proposed merger with France's PSA Group, which must wonder how much the suit will cost to defend and how much it might damage the reputation of the company or its brands.
It also adds difficulties to FCA's already challenging efforts to reach a new contract with the UAW and see it ratified by the rank and file. Extra fuel for union dissidents' fire will make it harder to win support.
And the suit drops a Silverado-sized load of mud on a man no longer able to defend himself. Sergio Marchionne, the late FCA chief executive, had many battles with GM — extracting billions to pay for Fiat's restructuring and publicly hounding the company for a merger. He is cast in the suit as the unseen puppeteer pulling the strings of the UAW's corruption.
In filing its suit, GM risks further worsening its relations with the union and its members beyond the recent 40-day strike that cost the company $3 billion. While the Detroit automaker went to great lengths to avoid accusing the union of systemic corruption, its arguments — buttressed by the findings of a federal investigation into malfeasance by union leaders — seem an open invitation to encourage a federal takeover of the Detroit-based union.
GM's filing gives it the upper hand right now and knocked FCA on its heels. But this fight is just getting started, and both automakers will get bloodied.