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Will Chrysler workers reject concession contract?

Published Oct 30, 2011 11:16 PM

As of this writing on Oct. 24, workers are still voting on a four-year contract between Chrysler and the United Auto Workers. Ratification is not a sure thing.

Like the recently passed contracts at General Motors and Ford, the contract turns back the clock on 60 years of gains won through struggle. The carrots dangled by GM and Ford bosses and approved by Wall Street were bonuses for workers totaling $8,000 and $12,000 each, respectively. In exchange, such established union standards as the cost-of-living allowance, premium pay after eight hours and on weekends, and “equal pay for equal work” were given up. There were other concessions such as fewer holidays, shorter breaks, frozen or cut pay for all but the lowest paid workers, pension reductions and a draconian attendance policy.

Scare tactics were employed by the UAW leadership, which openly touts their “partnership” with the Detroit Three companies. GM workers were told that this was the best the union could get under a no-strike clause imposed during the 2009 bankruptcy. Ford workers, on the other hand, were told that if they voted no they would have to go on strike and Ford could hire permanent replacements. Nevertheless, over a third of the workers at those two companies voted “no” and a number of UAW locals rejected the contract by wide margins.

For the most part the Chrysler agreement mirrored the Ford/GM pattern, but with one exception: The “ratification bonus” was cut from $5,000-$6,000 at the other two automakers to $3,500 at Chrysler. The real clincher was that only $1,750 was guaranteed. The other half would depend on the company achieving financial results that could not be guaranteed. Annual bonuses were also only half of what GM and one-third of what Ford agreed to pay.

This was a slap in the face to workers who have not had a raise in five years. They were infuriated by the belligerent “vote yes or else” attitude of Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne. The first locals to vote approved the contract, but some votes were close. By the second day of voting, three locals — including this writer’s Local 869 in Warren, Mich. — had turned the agreement down.

Workers felt strong. Local 869 members commented, “I’m so glad that we stood up” and, “Finally after 19 years we voted down an agreement” and, “In all my years of fighting concessions I have never been so proud.” Workers gave the thumbs up. They felt they had sent a message to Marchionne, who reportedly made the statement during the 2009 Chrysler bankruptcy discussions — which led to Fiat gaining up to 35 percent ownership of Chrysler at no cost to Fiat — that “the UAW has to get used to a culture of poverty.”

Union leadership wants
‘competitive’ companies

While the cheap lump sum may have been what provoked workers to vote no, the worst aspect of the contract is the divisive two-tier pay structure. Although this contract keeps “entry level” workers making $9 an hour less than everyone else, for them this is a substantial pay increase. UAW staff reps patrolled the plants, telling workers they would likely lose that raise if the contract is defeated and put in the hands of an arbitrator.

In reality, one can’t predict how an arbitrator might rule. Arbitration is intended to reduce “labor strife” by letting a neutral party resolve disputes. It disempowers workers by taking away the strike weapon. With this contract, however, striking is already legally limited. The union is confined to arguing at the bargaining table. There is no reason to believe that an arbitrator, who at least professes neutrality, would broker a worse deal than Marchionne, whose anti-union attitudes are public knowledge.

Moreover, the UAW could still resist if it wanted to. The union can strike over local contract issues. The pressure from the company on workers to vote yes could be the basis of an Unfair Labor Practice strike. An in-plant “work to rule” slowdown could be conducted. A “corporate campaign” could be waged against Chrysler’s major lenders. In fact, the UAW is already boycotting Chase Bank over the foreclosure issue.

The problem is that the International union won’t fight. To justify the lower bonuses, local union officials distributed leaflets that implied Chrysler was struggling financially.Workers at the Toledo Jeep plant, who are not covered by the no-strike language, were reportedly told by UAW Vice President General Holiefield that the UAW knows it could strike individual plants but opted not to because it would hurt the company.

Getting back COLA, ending two-tier, restoring the 3 percent “annual improvement factor” raises of the past, and ending work schedules that undermine the eight-hour day are things that should have been brought to the table. It is one thing to make demands and not win them. The UAW would be up against the company bosses, Wall Street, the state and the media. The outrage is in not even making just demands. UAW President Bob King stated that he did not want to make the companies “uncompetitive” by adding “fixed costs” like pay raises.

King openly backs the Occupy Wall Street movement, but with his own members he is shilling for the 1 percent. Autoworkers aren’t happy. In the words of one Local 869 member who voted no, “We are the 99 per cent whether they like it or not.”

Grevatt has been a Chrysler worker and UAW member for the last 24 years.