The United Auto Workers’ contract with General Motors is set to expire this weekend, raising the strong possibility that thousands of workers could end up on strike.
If the union and the company have made headway but can’t reach a new deal by Saturday night, they could agree to extend the current contract in hopes of avoiding a work stoppage. But if a breakthrough doesn’t seem likely, union leaders could start hashing out a strike strategy that would grind operations to a halt at several GM plants.
To complicate matters even more for GM, a separate strike by janitorial workers could create major problems inside its plants. GM contracts with Aramark for janitorial services, and those workers are also represented by the UAW. The Aramark employees are working under an extended agreement between Aramark and the UAW that the UAW will essentially allow to lapse on Saturday night, enabling the janitorial workers to go on strike for a new contract.
If the Aramark employees go on strike, they could effectively hamstring the plants all on their own, since the auto workers could refuse to cross the Aramark workers’ picket line. As the Detroit Free Press reported, The Aramark maneuver seems part of a strategy by the union to apply maximum pressure to GM this weekend.
The talks between the union and the Big Three this summer were expected to be the most intense in years. UAW members want to make significant gains on their previous contracts. While GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler are all warning of a sales slowdown in the auto sector, the union is pointing at several years of record or near-record profits for U.S. auto companies.
But a federal corruption probe continues to take the wind out of the union’s sails. Just this week, prosecutors charged a high-ranking UAW official, Vance Pearson, with embezzlement. Pearson is accused of spending member dues on extravagant parties that included champagne bottles upwards of $400 and women whose job was to light union officials’ cigars.
Pearson was previously a deputy to current UAW President Gary Jones, whose home was recently searched by the feds. The Detroit News reported Thursday that Jones is one of the unnamed union leaders described in the recent federal complaint.
In a statement, GM said it was “outraged and deeply concerned by the conduct of union officials as uncovered by the government’s investigation.”
The contracts at all three automakers expire this weekend, but the union is negotiating first with GM, where nearly 50,000 UAW members work. The contracts are determined through “pattern” bargaining: the first contract tends to determine the wages and benefits for the other two. Because GM goes first this year, it’s the most likely to see a strike. (The last strike was in 2007 and lasted just two days.)
Sean Crawford, a materials handler at GM’s Flint truck assembly plant, said the company has been profitable, and workers expect more money in their paychecks. He also said he wants the union to address the divisions within plants and end the remnants of a contentious two-tier wage system.
“It’s time for them to give back.”
When the economy and auto industry foundered in 2007, the UAW agreed to put newer hires on a lower pay scale. While the 2015 contracts put all workers on a path toward the top rate, it still takes eight years for newer employees to get there. Crawford wants to see that runway shortened ― and he wants to see fewer temporary workers inside plants, some of whom temp for more than two years before earning equal footing with colleagues.
“It’s one of those built-in, divide-and-conquer strategies that benefits the company,” Crawford said. “It’s a very real division and it needs to be addressed.”
As for GM, “It’s time for them to give back,” he said.
When the union was negotiating its last contracts, members at Fiat Chrysler voted down the first tentative deal reached by the UAW and the company in a rebuke of its leadership. That rejection ultimately led to a better deal for workers addressing the two-tier system. Kristin Dziczek, who tracks labor at the Center for Automotive Research, said workers at GM might employ the same strategy again.
“That does set up a dynamic that workers may reject the first agreement out of hand,” Dziczek said. “It just feels like this year it’s much more likely we’re going to see a strike, and that membership will be more likely to reject whatever comes back first anyway.”
Dziczek said that given GM’s recent profitability, many workers “see no reason why they should give concessions on anything.”
The union told members in a letter last week that talks at GM were “progressing slowly.” The letter said that local union leaders would all be meeting in Detroit this coming Sunday, perhaps to talk about a contract proposal from the company or to discuss “other necessary actions.”
The talks at GM come in the wake of an announcement late last year that the company would be idling five plants in Ohio, Maryland, Michigan and Ontario, Canada. Many of the workers who lost their jobs at those plants have picked up and moved to other cities to maintain GM work. (Crawford, from the Flint assembly plant, had been working at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant.) But one of the UAW’s top goals appears to be getting product reallocated to some of the idled facilities if it can.
The union could hold up product commitments at those plants as a major win when it badly needs one. The four-year corruption probe has created a slow drip of embarrassing news and upset many members.
Crawford said the scandal has left many members disenchanted and caused them to view union leadership as distant from the rank and file on the shop floor. He also believes it puts even more pressure on the union to deliver at the bargaining table.
“Them winning a good contact for us is probably the only thing that would address that cynicism,” he said.