UAW: Jobs the goal, even at 2nd-tier wages

March 30, 2011

UAW: Jobs the goal, even at 2nd-tier wages

Union says expansion a priority for summer contract negotiations

The Detroit News
Preserving and expanding U.S. factory jobs is the United Auto Workers’ top priority heading into contracts talks this summer with Detroit’s Big Three — even if that means having to consider paying more workers a lower, second-tier wage.
“We will look at anything when it comes to negotiations that will retain jobs,” UAW Vice President Joe Ashton said Tuesday at General Motors Co.’s plant in Orion Township. “The most important thing going into this set of negotiations (is) jobs.”
Ashton’s comments came in response to a question about whether the union would consider applying a unique two-tier wage structure in effect at Orion Assembly to other plants.
Under the agreement, about 40 percent of Orion workers will be paid $14-$16 an hour, compared to $28 for veterans.
Separately, Ashton said he expects new hiring at GM to begin immediately after the automaker recalls 1,200 workers still on layoff. That should happen by September, as GM adds workers at several other plants where the automaker is adding shifts, he said.
Ashton did not know how many new workers GM will need, or where they will be hired.
Ashton said the union also will use the coming negotiations to push for reopening idled plants in Spring Hill, Tenn., and Janesville, Wis., and to block the shutdown of GM’s factory in Shreveport, La., in mid-2012.
Four-year contracts with GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC expire Sept. 14.
He called the union’s chances of succeeding in Tennessee and Wisconsin “great,” because those plants were put on standby during GM’s bankruptcy. But he is less confident about Shreveport, because it is owned by the estate of the old GM, Motors Liquidation Co. That’s the repository of the company’s “bad” assets that were left behind in bankruptcy.
“We’re going to put a big emphasis on jobs,” Ashton said. “We can talk about wages and benefits, but if you don’t have jobs … wages don’t matter much.”
The UAW also may not pursue its long practice of pattern bargaining, in which the union targets one automaker to bargain with, and then replicates the agreement with the other two.
“That could change at negotiations,” Ashton said. “There are different stipulations than we’ve had in the past.”
Among those stipulations is a no-strike clause inserted into GM and Chrysler contracts during the automakers’ bankruptcies.
Expanding the two-tier pay model in place at Orion to other GM plants could prove difficult.
When the union agreed to lower, entry-level pay for new workers in 2007 to help Detroit’s automakers stay afloat, the agreement did not mandate a percentage of a plant’s work force be paid the lower wage.
The agreement that covers Orion, struck in 2009, called for paying the lower wage to 40 percent of workers in exchange for bringing small car manufacturing back to a U.S. GM factory.
The deal saved Orion from closing and GM starts production there this year on a new compact Buick called the Verano and the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact.
The two-tier pay concept has riled some UAW members who say it’s divisive.
Last week, UAW President Bob King said he doesn’t like the idea of different wages for the same job. The union wants to reopen the issue, but eliminating two-tier wages may not be feasible at this point, King said.
“This is going to be a tough issue,” Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said about trying to expand the Orion two-tier model to other factories.
Ashton and the UAW will have to make some compromises in pursuit of the larger goal — securing jobs, Shaiken said.
“If they’re able to generate new jobs, then they can regain wages down the road.”

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