‘No strike’ language riles UAW

October 24, 2009 http://detnews.com/article/20091024/AUTO01/910240311

‘No strike’ language riles UAW

Failure to OK contract with Ford may hurt bargaining

BRYCE G. HOFFMAN
The Detroit News

A misunderstanding over "no-strike" language in a proposed amendment to the United Auto Workers’ contract with Ford Motor Co. has sparked a backlash from some workers who accuse union leaders of giving up their most potent negotiating tool.

The Detroit News has learned that the language, which was included in recent contract changes the UAW negotiated with General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, was mandated by the Obama administration as a condition of its bailout of the two companies. It was designed to ensure the competitive gains that were forced through by the White House could not be reversed in 2011 contract negotiations between GM and Chrysler and the UAW, according to people familiar with the situation.

Now, labor experts say a failure to approve similar language as part of the Ford deal could jeopardize the pattern bargaining arrangement that has defined the relationship between the UAW and Detroit’s automakers for decades.

Professor Harley Shaiken, who teaches labor studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and has advised UAW leaders in the past, said the tentative agreement reached between Ford and the UAW last week does not give up the union’s right to strike. It would prevent workers from striking over pay and benefit increases in 2011, but they would still be able to take to the picket lines if Ford attempted to reduce their compensation.

"It’s easy to misinterpret this language," Shaiken said. "But this was skillfully negotiated by (UAW Vice President) Bob King. He viewed it as necessary to ensure the long-term gains of the union and pattern bargaining. It also gives the company a measure of certainty at a time when the industry as a whole is facing tremendous uncertainty."

White House wording

That uncertainty forced Ford’s cross-town rivals to seek a federal bailout earlier this year.

The White House loaned GM and Chrysler $62 billion, but they were forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and aggressively restructure their U.S. operations. Washington also insisted on big concessions from the UAW.

They included changes in work rules that limit job classifications for skilled trades workers, a freeze on wages and benefits for entry level employees and cuts to retiree benefits.

All of this was aimed at making the two companies competitive with foreign automakers operating in the United States.

But the Obama administration worried the union might demand the restoration of lost pay and benefits if GM and Chrysler returned to profitability, jeopardizing the gains, sources said. To ensure that the billions taxpayers invested would not be wasted, the government demanded that the UAW accept limits on its right to strike over pay and benefit increases in 2011 talks, sources said.

This so-called "no strike" clause was also key to convincing Italy’s Fiat SpA to take over struggling Chrysler, the sources added.

Fiat officials were not available to comment.

In February, before the UAW began its negotiations with GM and Chrysler, the union approached Ford to negotiate a deal on the company’s contribution to a new union-controlled voluntary employees’ beneficiary association, or VEBA, that would assume responsibility for hourly retiree health care at the end of this year.

The union wanted to negotiate with Ford first because it was financially stronger than GM and Chrysler and had not asked for a taxpayer bailout. According to people familiar with those talks, the UAW hoped to negotiate more favorable terms with Ford and then insist that GM and Chrysler match them in the spirit of pattern bargaining.

Ford would not comment, but sources said the company agreed on the condition that the UAW give the automaker any additional concessions granted to its rivals; now Ford wants to collect on that debt.

Dissidents urge ‘no’ vote

Last week, UAW leaders representing Ford plants across the country voted overwhelmingly to support concessions that would go a long way toward matching the GM and Chrysler deals.

Ford was unable to negotiate any cuts to retiree benefits or match the concessions on skilled trades that GM and Chrysler won from the union. But Ford believes it got enough to remain competitive with its crosstown rivals and the foreign transplants.

In exchange, Ford made new production commitments to several factories, including a deal to move production of its Kuga crossover from Europe to the United States. It also agreed to pay workers $1,000 for helping to improve vehicle quality.

The deal still must be ratified by rank-and-file union members.

The first five factories to vote — Wayne Assembly Plant, Michigan Assembly Plant and Ford’s three engine plants in Cleveland — all approved the agreement by narrow margins Thursday. But voting has yet to take place at factories like the Dearborn Truck Plant, where some workers are actively organizing opposition to it.

Dissident leader Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committee member at UAW Local 600 who represents workers at Dearborn Truck, said union leaders already abandoned pattern bargaining by granting additional concessions to GM and Chrysler.

"If they want a pattern agreement, they should bring GM and Chrysler back up to where we’re at," he said, adding that he opposes any limits on the union’s right to stop working.

"It strikes at the very heart of what a union is. Without it, they’ll have no reason to protect our pay and benefits."

Walkowicz accused union leaders of purposely delaying the vote at his factory until next Friday so that a "no" vote there would not encourage other plants to oppose ratification. At the same time, some workers at factories that have approved the agreement are accusing union leaders of vote fraud. As a result, Walkowicz is calling on national UAW leaders to open vote counting to rank-and-file members.

The UAW would not comment, but local leaders, including UAW Local 600 President Jerry Sullivan, accuse dissidents of spreading "misinformation" about the no-strike language to prevent ratification.

Shaiken said the concession controversy is a sign of the times.

"What it really reflects," he said, "is the tough economic climate and the sustained pressure on the auto industry."

A critical vote on the agreement will come Sunday when 3,900 workers at Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant cast their ballots. The rest of the voting is to be completed by Friday.

bhoffman@detnews.com">bhoffman@detnews.com (313) 222-2443

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