There was a time when “concessions” referred to contract gains that labor wrested from management — sometimes after long strikes. The United Auto Workers contracts with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now FCA) once set the bar for what workers across the country, even non-unionized workers, could expect in terms of pay and benefits. The UAW led the way in winning employer-paid health insurance, which many workers still take for granted.
Now concession bargaining means the opposite — unions giving up hard-fought improvements to supposedly keep a company solvent, competitive and/or profitable (or to cut costs in the public sector and at “non-profits”). During the first federal bailout of Chrysler in 1979, the UAW took big pay cuts, gave up paid time off and made other givebacks to “save” the company.
Labor’s backward slide accelerated after the 1981 air traffic controllers strike was broken. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization struck over a range of issues, primarily working conditions. President Ronald Reagan fired everyone who refused to return to work.
The breaking of PATCO put labor on the defensive and givebacks became commonplace. Two-tier language began to appear in contracts, starting with the airline and grocery unions. Future workers hired after a certain date — the second tier — were locked into a lower pay scale. Workers made different wages while doing the same work side-by-side; two-tier made for a divided union membership.
The pitch made then to the rank and file by class-collaborationist union bureaucrats was along the lines of “It won’t hurt your paycheck.” Now two-tier language, in UAW contracts with the Detroit Three since 2007, has been replaced by multi-tier language. The temporaries employed by the Detroit Three, now about 7 to 10 percent of the workforce, are a third tier.