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The UAW Agreement Is a Bad Deal

After launching the longest strike in decades, General Motors workers are voting on a tentative deal. But the agreement meets neither of the strikers’ most important demands: ending plant closings and scrapping the rotten system of tiered pay and benefits.

Striking United Auto Workers members picket at the General Motors Lansing Grand River Assembly plant for the fifth week of the strike on October 16, 2019 in Lansing, Michigan. Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

The larger the signing bonus, the more they’re stealing from your back pocket — that’s the standard that striking workers can use to judge the tentative agreement between the United Autoworkers (UAW) and General Motors (GM). The deal would give most employees $11,000 and even “active temporary employees” $4,500 for ratifying the deal.

UAW strikers — who have now spent five weeks on the picket line, the longest stretch in decades — are still processing what else is in the agreement. The deal was announced on October 17, a twenty-page summary went up on the UAW website the following day, and local union informational meetings began on Saturday. The majority of strikers will likely decide yay or nay based on the informational meetings and summary booklet they receive the day they vote. Unfortunately, workers don’t have much space to study, read, unpack, and discuss the general outline of the contract, let alone the actual language — voting is to be completed by Friday.

But even from the summary, it’s clear that strikers’ most important demands — ending “tiered” pay and benefits and keeping open the four US plants slated to close — have not been met. This is particularly striking since UAW officials chose GM as the first of the Big Three automakers to negotiate with precisely in order to prevent those closings.

What Happens to the Temps?

Some of the blame for the tentative deal’s shortcomings lies with the UAW negotiating team. UAW leaders never insisted on reversing the tiering of the workforce, particularly the practice of having “permanent” temporaries. They only talked about temporary workers, who make up 7 percent of the workforce, gaining a “path to permanent status.” With the tentative contract, negotiators claim to have cleared the way — but the obstacle course laid out is far from the strikers’ demand to end the injustice.

Starting next January, “full-time temps” who have “continuous service” of at least three years at GM would “begin converting to permanent status.” At the time of “conversion,” temps (who are classified as A, B, or C, according to the kind of work they do) would “grow in” to a wage of $21 to $24 an hour. Time worked as a temp would also count toward advancement on the wage schedule. As they are added to the seniority list, former temps would be entitled to some paid time off and a better health-care plan.

Out of the approximately 4,200 temps at GM, officials predict that about 2,000 would meet the criteria sometime during 2020. The following January, those who have worked at least two years as temps could gain permanent status. The contract would also boost the wages of temps (to between $17.53 and $22 an hour, with new temps starting at $16.67) and give them paid and unpaid time off. They could also be laid off for up to thirty days and still maintain “continuous service.”

Cut through the byzantine language, and the implications are unambiguous: temps would be a permanent fixture of the GM workforce. In fact, it appears that instead of the traditional practice of hiring workers for a ninety-day probationary period, all new workers would begin as temps. The union leadership touts this as a way to monitor temp hirings. But it’s better understood as a concession that codifies the extensive use of temps, allowing GM to sift through workers and decide which ones will get on the seniority list. It’s relatively easy, after all, to eliminate someone who asks a union rep for help or tries to organize other workers. It’s significantly cheaper for the company, too.

Tiers and Outsourcing as Far as the Eye Can See

Rolling back the tiered system first established in the 2007 contract, on the cusp of the Great Recession, has been a perennial concern of UAW members. About 35 percent of the current GM workforce has been hired since 2007 and was never eligible for top wages or benefits, such as a pension or health-care coverage after retirement.

By 2015, workers’ main demand was to bring wages and benefits in line with those hired before 2007 (“legacy” workers). When the provisional agreement that year didn’t address their concern, workers voted it down, forcing negotiators back to the table. The next agreement labeled these workers “in progression” and set up an eight-year wage scale (although the contract was still just four years). It passed at Chrysler, but it barely squeaked by at GM and Ford.

Under the current tentative deal, “in progression” workers would reach the same wage rate as “legacy” workers by the end of the contract, but even then, they would not receive a pension or health care after retirement.

The tiers first introduced in 2015 are extended into the 2019 tentative agreement. Those working at four GM Components Holdings plants (GMCH) start at $16.25 per hour and max out after eight years at $22.50; those at parts-handling facilities (CCA) begin at $17 an hour.

While these tiers are covered under the 2019 agreement, outsourced work, such as maintenance — once covered in the master agreement — is carried out by workers at other companies. In Michigan and Ohio, 850 workers hired by Aramark and represented by the UAW work at GM, performing a variety of tasks. They walked out a day before GM autoworkers went on strike, with some refusing to cross their picket line and others picketing with them before reporting to work.

Aramark maintenance workers are so crucial to operations that when the GM tech center realized there was no one to clean their offices and bathrooms, they hired more than a hundred scabs to fill in. The UAW-Aramark tentative agreement would raise the wage of the lowest-paid worker to $15.18, topping out at $17. They would also receive a $250 Christmas bonus and an extra $150 each quarter if they have perfect attendance. Results of the workers’ vote on the deal have not yet been announced.

Shuttered Plants, Stagnant Wages

Under the 2015 contract, GM was barred from closing any of its facilities. But it got around that language by simply announcing it had no product for those plants and placing them on “unallocated” status. Warren Transmission in Michigan, Lordstown Assembly in Ohio, and Baltimore Operations in Maryland have all been mothballed. The tentative agreement not only fails to reverse these three plant closings, it also adds another: a distribution center in California.

Only the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, an assembling facility, will remain open. It is to be retooled, with estimates that it will take a year. Meanwhile, the UAW signaled it will drop the legal suit it had brought against GM for shuttering the Lordstown plant.

Although the summary claims that job security has been strengthened through a moratorium on outsourcing and the establishment of a joint UAW-GM national committee on advanced technology, it is difficult to believe the language will match reality. Al Benchich, former union president of the now-closed Warren Transmission, noted that when he was hired, there were 4,000 workers at his plant and 450,000 UAW workers at the Big Three. Each contract contained job security guarantees — but today there are only 150,000 Big Three autoworkers, including temps.

And whatever the tentative deal’s carrots — including an agreement to hire 400 apprentices for skilled trades programs, maintain current health-care costs, and provide 3 percent wage increases during two of the four years — they’re meager considering GM’s profits. The wage increases, signing bonus, lump-sum payments, and profit sharing still fall short of what a Cost-of-Living-Adjustment (COLA) could do. Without COLA (which ensures inflation doesn’t eat into wages), pay will effectively remain flat.

GM’s Nickel and Diming

Will the tentative agreement be voted up or down? UAW officials are promoting it as a win, even as they acknowledge the plant closings. Lordstown workers say they will reject it and are encouraging others to do the same. An early remark on a Listserv offered this appraisal: “Same as last contract. No plant closing and need UAW approval to use temps. GM violated those provisions last time so why trust it now?”

Yet despite disappointment over how little was gained after five weeks on the picket line, the majority of workers will probably vote yes — and all it takes is a simple majority. Some may weigh benefits and drawbacks and reluctantly vote yes, eager to conclude a grinding strike and perhaps not realizing how much outsourcing has occurred. Others may feel this negotiating team is incapable of bringing back a better deal.

As of yesterday morning, the total number of “no” votes stands at 2,161 out of 5,869 cast. The largest local to weigh in so far is the Spring Hill, Tennessee assembly plant, where much work is outsourced. The local voted down the deal, but only by 51 percent.

Perhaps as many as 40 percent will vote against the agreement. The question is whether they can become a core capable of stepping forward to challenge the concessions. If so, the autoworkers in the still-unorganized transplants like Volkswagen would have a leadership model they could use to transform their own working conditions.

The dream the strikers have had on the picket line these last few weeks was one of equality. Hopefully, the solidarity will not disappear as the burn barrels and tents are taken down.