General Motors Workers Approve Contract To End Historic Strike

2019-10-25 16:07:42

A majority of United Auto Workers members signed off on the tentative agreement between the union and General Motors, ending a massive strike that lasted more than five weeks and shut down GM production across the country.

GM workers spent the past week casting ballots to determine whether to ratify the new contract. By the time voting ended Friday afternoon, several union locals had ended up opposing the proposal, arguing that it didn’t satisfy the aims of the strike, but support was broad enough across the country to push the deal through.

The contract covers nearly 50,000 workers, the bulk of them in the Midwest. The union did not release a final vote tally, but said members would start returning to work for their regularly scheduled shifts.

Terry Dittes, the UAW vice president who led negotiations for the union, said members “have spoken.”

“We are all so incredibly proud of UAW-GM members who captured the hearts and minds of a nation,” Dittes said.

The union announced that it would next bargain a new contract with Ford, followed by Fiat Chrysler, rounding out Detroit’s Big Three.

Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, called it “a contract that recognizes our employees for the important contributions they make to the overall success of the company.”

United Auto Workers members picket outside the Bedford Casting Operations plant in Bedford, Indiana, on Oct. 18, 2019. 

United Auto Workers members picket outside the Bedford Casting Operations plant in Bedford, Indiana, on Oct. 18, 2019. 

The four-year deal with GM offers workers 3% raises in the first and third years of the contract; they would receive lump-sum payments worth 4% of workers’ salaries in the other two years. The contract maintains the employee-friendly status quo on health insurance, and makes progress on giving temporary workers a pathway to permanent employment.  

The deal also chips away at the contentious “two-tier” system in which newer hires work on a lower pay scale than legacy employees ― a concession the union made in 2007 as GM neared bankruptcy. Now, those second-tier workers, known as “in progression,” can reach the top pay of roughly $32 per hour within four years, as opposed to eight years under the previous contract.

But the agreement still maintains schisms within the workforce. Workers employed at four parts plants under the GM subsidiary GMHC will continue to work on a lower pay tier and need eight years of service before reaching the top pay. Many newer workers at distribution warehouses would continue to earn less than assembly employees, maxing out around $25 per hour.

Many workers in those facilities opposed the contract, saying it would cement their second-class status and sow division within the union’s ranks. Automotive News reported that at two parts plants in New York, 81% of production workers and 62% of skilled trade workers gave the proposal a thumbs-down.

Beth Baryo, a GM warehouse employee in Michigan, told HuffPost she was a “very strong no” vote on the contract. Baryo will eventually reach the higher rate of $32 per hour, so the tier system doesn’t hurt her as much. But she believes the different levels ultimately weaken the union and pit employees against one another. She also worries the new agreement still gives GM too much leeway to exploit temporary workers.

“The minute I saw there were still tiers involved, regardless of whatever the benefits were, it was immediately a ‘no’ for me,” Baryo said. “I didn’t need to know any more.”

Last year, GM announced plans to idle four plants, making job losses a major concern for UAW members. GM has made a promise to build electric trucks at one of those facilities, the Detroit-Hamtramck plant in Michigan, but the remaining three still have no plans for new production, including the Lordstown plant in Ohio.

Officials of UAW Local 160 check their phones to get updates on the UAW-GM contract ratification vote count on Oct. 25, 2019

Officials of UAW Local 160 check their phones to get updates on the UAW-GM contract ratification vote count on Oct. 25, 2019 in Warren, Michigan.

Not surprisingly, the Lordstown local voted heavily against the contract, with many workers bitter at the plant being shut down. Fifty-three production workers there voted in favor, versus 399 against. But the contract fared much better in other locals with more job security, including Flint, Michigan, where pickups are built. There, 2,281 production workers voted in favor, versus 1,496 against, according to a running tally kept by Automotive News.

The strike ultimately lasted 40 days, making it the longest U.S. auto strike in a more than 20 years. GM employees went on strike in 2007 for just two days; a GM strike in 1998 lasted 54 days.

As HuffPost reported in July, there was a very strong chance UAW members would go on strike this year as they fought for stronger contracts. The union gave up significant concessions more than a decade ago when the auto industry foundered. Now that automakers have recovered ― and GM in particular, which had roughly $11 billion in profits last year ― workers are intent on making up ground.

The tentative agreement with GM came with an enticing carrot: a ratification bonus of up to $11,000, to be paid out once the contract is final. Many workers who just gave up more than a month’s worth of wages would have had a hard time saying no to that lump sum. 

In the case of legacy employees and skilled trade workers, who are eligible for the full $11,000, the ratification bonus more than makes up for the wages they lost due to the strike, according to an analysis from Michigan-based Anderson Economic Group. Temporary workers and in-progression workers get a bonus of $4,500, which covers most but not all of the wages they sacrificed.

The group estimates that, in total, GM lost more than $1.75 billion in profits due to stalled production, and that workers gave up roughly $1 billion in wages over the course of the work stoppage. The UAW paid out $250 in weekly strike pay ― later raised to $275 ― which amounts to a fraction of a GM worker’s typical earnings.

Several workers had told HuffPost in the middle of the strike that they were starting to feel the pinch. Joel Inocencio, who works at a parts distribution center in Pennsylvania, said earlier this month that he was going to speak with his mortgage lender about possibly getting a reprieve due to the strike. 

“But all of this ― it pays off, just hanging in there,” he said. “It’s a few weeks of sacrifice.”

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