Selling old concessions in new bottles

October 20, 2015

United Auto Workers (UAW) members at Chrysler will vote Tuesday and Wednesday for a second time on a new tentative agreement that the union leadership is selling as an advance for autoworkers. But UAW members say little has changed with the new tentative deal, which was rejected the first time by 65 percent of members at Chrysler--only the tactics of the UAW International's sales job. Retired General Motors autoworker Gregg Shotwell, author of Autoworkers Under the Gun: Live Bait & Ammo, looks at what's at stake in the union leadership's rerun of a vote they couldn't win the first time around.

THE HARBINGER has sounded. On October 1, United Auto Workers (UAW) members rejected a tentative agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) by a two-to-one margin. Then, the UAW International spun around like a cold-cocked drunk, reshuffled the deck, and dealt another shaky hand to workers.

The biggest bone of contention for UAW members was equal pay. The new contract promises equal pay for all--eight years from now. Without COLA, the installment plan is more like a cut than a raise. Workers produce profit today, and the Con says, "Some day, baby, who knows, maybe, we'll pay what we owe--eight years from today. Okay?"

There's no way for UAW members to comprehend how a four-year contract can guarantee raises in eight years. Apparently, the top leadership of the UAW, which calls itself the Administration Caucus, but is more aptly known as the Concession Caucus, hasn't acknowledged its credibility problem.

Dave Barkholz at Automotive News reported that Norwood Jewell, the UAW VP in charge of negotiations at FCA, admitted publicly that the "Highlights" which the Concession Caucus presented to UAW members at contract information meetings cannot be trusted. Now he is promising a payout that the contract can't guarantee to an untrusting membership. The old Jewell has lost his con. The trick won't click.

First-shift workers getting off the job at a Chrysler truck assembly plant
First-shift workers getting off the job at a Chrysler truck assembly plant

The new deal is more of a "selective bargaining agreement" than a "collective bargaining agreement." Everyone gets a different shake. I've heard Chrysler workers say there will be as many as 10 different tiers, but it's hard to nail the shakedown.

Some workers "in progression" will attain traditional pay scales in less than eight years. Some will never get there. FCA workers in the Mopar Division have equal pay now, but future Mopar workers won't. Axle workers have a much lower rate, and axle work is damn hard labor. There is no cap on second-tier new hires, which for FCA is like an open bar and a free ride home. Temporaries will make less than they do now.

Automotive News reported that the new deal permits FCA to "double the use of temporary staff"--another glaring omission torpedoed from the "Highlights." The temp deal was buried under 250 pages of legal jargon. Whoever found that nugget of ossified crap must have been paid by the word, not the hour.

Under UAW contracts, temps pay dues and are allowed to vote, but since they don't acquire seniority, they don't have traditional union rights, and the company can terminate them without cause. Temps get pushed around a lot, but they don't dare complain, let alone demand a grievance. Temps are always aware of their precarious status on the job. A permanent class of temps is not only an oxymoron, it's an atrocity in a union contract.

I'M SORRY I can't make this contract analysis less confusing, but neither can the negotiators. The UAW Concession Caucus blamed social media for the stunning ratification results the first time around. So they hired a PR firm to tip the communication scales. According to a Detroit Free Press report, "The UAW has turned to BerlinRosen--a public relations firm that was involved with Detroit's bankruptcy and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's election--to help the union communicate its message with workers."

In other words, UAW members pay UAW representatives to pay someone else to represent the UAW representatives to UAW members. The double talk is so convoluted it reminds me of Jeopardy, the TV game show where the answer is in the form of a question: What PR firm is paid from a strike fund?

The ratification process for the new tentative agreement has been altered to tip the scales. Instead of spreading the voting procedure over two weeks, the ratification will be concluded in two days. Instead of voting in the easy access of the workplace, where members can vote during lunch or breaks, they'll have to drive off-site to the union hall before or after work. The new ratification plan intentionally limits participation.

The Con Caucus and its business partner FCA claim the pie is too small, and if workers demand too much, investment in jobs will move offshore. But some pieces seem to be missing from the pie puzzle.

Big pieces. Billion-dollar pieces.

According to Bloomberg News, Fiat relies on Chrysler profits to make up for losses in Europe. Marchionne's plan to invest in Italian factories "depends on access to Chrysler's $12 billion cash hoard." When did the pie-slicing begin and where was the UAW Concession Caucus when the divvy went down? As Bloomberg continued:

Fiat started accumulating Chrysler stock in June 2009 as part of a government and labor-union bailout of the U.S. carmaker...Rather than paying cash for the initial 20 percent holding and subsequent 15 percent stake, Fiat provided management experience and technology and helped Chrysler meet various performance milestones, such as developing models.

Daimler bought Chrysler for $36 billion in 1998. Cerberus paid $7.4 billion for an 80 percent stake in 2007. Fiat bought it for "management experience and technology." When do workers get a slice of pie for their experience and know how? Does hard work count for nothing in America? Here's a Jeopardy Daily Double-talk answer: What union represents management?

In 2014, Fiat bought out the UAW Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) trust's 41.5 percent stake in FCA. Initially, the UAW trust demanded $5 billion for the stake, but settled for $4.35 billion. Bloomberg News reported that most of the money was put up by Chrysler not Fiat. "Marchionne did a great job," Vincenzo Longo, a strategist at IG Group in Milan, told Bloomberg. "Fiat couldn't get a better deal."

THE UAW could get a better deal. Now, not later. UAW members have already sacrificed plenty. It's high time to collect a fat slice of pie. According to Bloomberg, the Center for Automotive Research found that "since 2009 in the U.S., management compensation has grown about 50 percent faster than union workers' income. In the U.S. auto industry, real wages have declined 24 percent since 2003."

How come there's always more money for salaried workers? How come the press doesn't report what FCA spends on expense accounts? How come the investing class doesn't have to wait eight years for the payoff? How did I get fooled into saying eight? Top-tier UAW workers haven't had a raise or COLA in 10 years.

The struggle for fair pay isn't unique to the UAW. Workers everywhere are treated as if they don't deserve a decent standard of living. An entire generation of workers are treated like second-class citizens, less deserving, less valuable. The implication is clear--if you work for a living, you must be stupid. The Cons can blow the whole strike fund on PR, and it won't cover up the vile stench of entitlement.

The UAW Con Caucus must think members all got blasted waiting for the new deal. Instead of eliminating tiers, they multiplied them. What a worker gets paid depends on where they work, how long they've worked, and who they are related to in the chain of patronage. For UAW President Dennis Williams to call this a good contract is astounding, bold-face bullshit. Here's a Jeopardy Daily Double-talk answer: Who is the president who won't shed a tier?

The Alternative Work Schedules (AWS) which force workers to work overtime for straight-time pay and alternate in some situations from days to nights will be resolved, according to the Cons, after the contract is ratified.

After? Does the Con Caucus think UAW members can't read or reason? Here's another Jeopardy Daily Double-talk answer: Who wagers on wages after a contract expires?

When I worked an AWS at Delphi, we got paid time-and-a-half after eight hours of work and double time on Sundays. We worked three 12-hour days one week, which amounted to twelve hours of overtime, which equals 42 hours of pay for 36 hours of work. The next week, we worked four 12-hour days. Every other week, we got a four-day weekend. We got paid for lunch. We got shift premium for night work. We didn't alternate from days to nights. I worked less hours and made more money than I ever did in my life.

How's this for an alternative? A stable schedule, time-and-a-half after eight hours, double time on Sundays and holidays, and a 10 percent night-shift premium.

THE CONS insist that the competition is nonunion, and we need to organize. Damn straight. One of the major issues for Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is AWS. Why should they join the UAW when AWS is a problem for UAW members? Workers are attracted to unions by good contracts. Unions that need to hire PR firms to sell contracts attract flies, not new members.

Daniel Howes, a columnist at the Detroit News well-known for his anti-union bias, reported: "For all the attention Wall Street and the news media pay to union labor and its contracts with the Detroit automakers, the UAW is an increasingly small component of overall costs. The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) estimates that UAW labor accounts for 8 percent of Ford's total costs, 6 to 7 percent at GM, and just 4 percent at FCA." Four percent isn't a slice, it's crust.

Dennis Williams quit talking about the health care co-op for good reason. He couldn't explain it. In which case, workers are wise to suspect it is not in their best interests. If it was, Williams could lay it out in plain English. What's plain is that even if premiums aren't deducted from UAW members' checks, there is nothing in the contract to restrict the cost-shifting of health care from the company to the worker. Co-pays, deductibles and fees tend to rise faster than wages.

Second-tier workers deserve to make more money than top-tier workers because they do not have a pension or health care in retirement. They need to make more money if they are ever to save for retirement. The Concession Caucus acts like this glaring inequality doesn't exist. My final Jeopardy Daily Double-talk answer: What is anti-union?

Workers everywhere are watching the UAW because we are all in the same leaky lifeboat. Our incomes have diminished while the investing class has made out like bandits in a lawless country. Workers deserve reparations now, not raises postponed without COLA.

The preponderance of "no" votes against the UAW contract at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is a harbinger of courage and outrage prevalent in the working class today. We want our due, and we want it now.

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