UAW-GM contract passes, but with much opposition

United Auto Workers members voted 58 percent in favor of a four-year contract with General Motors, the union announced on Nov. 6. The same day, the UAW reached a similar tentative agreement with Ford, which Ford workers are currently voting on. The ratification of the GM agreement has been delayed because skilled trades members, who have language specific to their concerns, rejected the contract.

This contract in most ways mirrors the contract Fiat Chrysler Automobiles workers passed in October. That contract was significant because it came after workers rejected institutionalized two-tier pay in an initial version, causing a second version to be negotiated that gives second-tier workers a path to top pay. However, the lower seniority workers — production workers hired after Oct. 29, 2007 — still do not get a traditional pension. Their health care and other benefits are also less than first-tier workers.

With GM’s third-quarter profits reaching a record $3.1 billion before interest and taxes, workers there would likely have rejected a contract that did not improve upon the Fiat Chrysler template. In addition to much larger “signing bonuses,” the GM contract — and now also the Ford contract — give second-tier workers equal health care benefits. That is another important step towards eradicating the unequal and divisive tiered pay structures that pull wages down and threaten union solidarity. It is another victory for the grassroots shop floor resistance to two-tier that sunk the initial FCA contract.

The GM and Ford contracts, however, also have all the hidden pay inequities of the FCA pattern. There are lower rates of pay for temporary workers, future permanent workers and workers at certain parts plants. The eight-year wage progression, with the biggest raises towards the end, will mean someone with four years’ seniority will make over $7 less an hour than someone with eight years.  At the end of the four-year agreement it will be possible for rates of pay to vary by almost 50 percent — over $14 an hour — for workers doing the same or comparable work.

After these new tiers became widely publicized, they became one of the key reasons that 42 percent of GM workers voted no. And a majority voted no at the four GM plants where the top pay is substantially lower than in the rest of the UAW plants. The contract forces “legacy” workers to take a job at another plant to keep their “traditional” pay. Two of three Ford plants with an identical setup also voted no.

The GM skilled trades workers, about 16 percent of the overall UAW membership, had an added incentive to reject the contract. A draconian job consolidation plan, foisted upon the membership during the state-orchestrated bankruptcy of 2009, is left virtually intact. This language eliminates over two dozen classifications, making most tradespeople a generic “mechanical journeyperson.”

This threatens safety as well as job security. While trades jobs are the highest-paying and often less physically demanding, they remain the most dangerous. The jobs involve working inside and on top of machinery, confined-space work, working with high voltages and other hazards. The majority of UAW workplace fatalities are in the trades. Without the extensive training unique to each trade, a typical trades worker will face greater risk of injury in these generic classifications.

“Someone is going to get hurt and it’s going to be because of this,” explained John Ilgenfritz, a tractor repair specialist at GM’s Wentzville, Mo., plant. (Detroit News, Nov. 13) Four years ago, Chrysler skilled trades workers rejected the contract over similar concerns. Without giving the workers a chance to state their view, the UAW’s International Executive Board overrode the vote and declared the contract ratified. Hundreds of members protested the ratification through the union’s internal appeal process. This appeal, while it did not reverse the IEB’s decision, created a better environment for all workers who exercise their democratic right to reject contract concessions.

Many trades workers voiced their concerns at meetings held at local union halls to determine the reasons for their rejection of the contract. As with the overall no vote at FCA, UAW negotiators feel the rank-and-file pressure and are meeting with GM to try to improve the language on skilled trades. This shows again that workers will benefit when we put aside our fears, stand up to company and union official intimidation, and say no to concessions.

Whether or not the Ford agreement will pass is not yet known. What is clear is that there is a restless mood on the shop floor among workers who see the obscene profits of the bosses and want back what they gave up earlier to save the companies. The current crop of leaders, who openly embrace a “partnership” with the bosses, eventually must adopt a more anti-capitalist stance or get out of the way of a resurgent membership.

Martha Grevatt is a 28-year UAW-Chrysler skilled tradeswoman.