UAW workers seek end to two-tier wage structure

August 13, 2011 http://detnews.com/article/20110813/AUTO01/108130405

UAW workers seek end to two-tier wage structure

CHRISTINA ROGERS
/ The Detroit News

Detroit — Dozens of angry and flustered auto industry workers gathered in Detroit Saturday to call for an end to the two-tier wage structure becoming prevalent at U.S. automaker plants.

The pay inequality is causing divisiveness on the factory floor and pitting membership against each other at a time when workers need to present a unified front in fighting more concession during this year’s round of contract talks, these UAW-represented workers say.

The event, organized by dissident group Auto Worker Caravan, drew about 50 attendees to St. John Baptist Church off Woodward Avenue, some from as far away as Indiana and Ohio.

Speakers at the event urged members to vote no on preserving the two-tier wage structure through the next contract.

“The animosity is there. People are very, very angry,” said Gregory Warzecha, a 34-year-old tier-two worker at General Motors Co.’s Orion Assembly plant. “But they’re scared to speak out. It’s like putting a target on their back.”

At Detroit Big Three plants, so-called entry-level workers earned $14 to $16 an hour, about half the wage of veteran workers. The UAW first agreed to the second-tier in 2007 as a way to help the companies survive and better compete with their foreign rivals in the South, which have traditionally paid factory workers less. The UAW represents about 112,000 hourly workers at GM, Ford and Chrysler, and its four-year agreements with the Detroit automakers expire Sept. 14.

Orion Assembly was one of the first automaker plants to mandate a certain percentage of tier-two workers when it reopened this year to build two new small cars, the Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano. About 40 percent of the plant’s 1,100 hourly workforce must earn the lower-wage; the remaining 60 percent are first-tier workers.

UAW members attending the rally said they fear the companies will try to expand second-tier use during contract talks underway now.

Workers, speaking out against the tiered pay, say the lower wages erode the middle class and could pave the way for cutting the wages of traditional, first-tier workers, who start at about $28 an hour.

“I’m going to be tin-canning it along with the second tier in no time,” said Jim Theisen, a first-tier transport worker with Chrysler Group LLC who fears the cutbacks could eventually dragged down his pay and benefits.

UAW President Bob King has said the union would like to bump up pay for second-tiered workers and this increase will be apart of this year’s contract talks. But UAW leadership has stopped short of calling for its repeal, arguing the lower-wages are needed to keep the domestic carmakers competitive.

Gary Walkowicz, who is on the bargaining committee at UAW local 600, said workers at Ford Motor Co. must be prepared to back up their no vote with a strike.

Unlike at GM and Chrysler, which gave up their right to strike as part of a government funded bailout, Ford workers have retained their right to walk out. Walkowicz said he isn’t sure if Ford workers are getting ready for that but said it has to be a option.

“We have an opportunity to fight,” Walkowicz said. “We have to let the companies know we’re ready to take them on.”

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