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UAW GM National Council considering tentative contract

four men holding picket signs
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

The UAW and GM have a tentative contract.

The proposed four-year contract could end the longest national strike against the carmaker since 1970. But union leaders still have to sell the deal to a rank and file that's been on the picket line for a month.

Brian Peterson of Anderson Economic Group says every week, the financial costs are mounting.  

"We're talking about in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion in lost profit for GM, and direct wage losses of $835 million for union members and automotive supplier workers," he says.

Peterson says the strike's impact is also starting to be felt by customers.

"We're hearing whispers about people not being able to get their vehicle repaired or be able to purchase a vehicle on a dealer lot that they were looking for," he says.

And for those on the picket line, the strike hasn't just hit them in the pocketbook. Jessie Kelly is with Local 160 in Warren, Michigan. She says it's tough living on the $250 a week in strike pay, along with other hardships.

But she says she and her fellow strikers have kept up their spirits.

"I would say it's been emotionally tolling, physically tolling," says Kelly. "I don't think I would use the word discouraged, because we all believe at the end of the day that the sacrifices will be 100% worth it."

Details of the tentative contract haven't been released yet. But the union and GM started out very far apart on most of the issues. 

GM says its labor costs are higher than other car companies in the U.S., and it needs to rein them in. The company's first offer during negotiations would have required workers to pay a lot more than 4% of their health insurance premiums. 

Kelly says that would be a reason to walk away from the deal.

"If anything with the health insurance were to change, that is just, absolutely unacceptable," says Kelly.

The two sides also began far apart on GM's reliance on temporary workers, and lower wages for recently hired employees. 

Kelly says this contract has to give her colleagues who are temporary workers some hope of getting hired in permanently, and newly hired workers shouldn't have to wait eight years before making as much as she does. That's even at the expense of a better hourly wage increase for herself and other higher paid workers, she says.

"We want our wins to come to those employees that have less than us and to those who are making a good standard of living right now," she says.

But GM says it needs the flexibility on wages to stay competitive.

Another big conflict was over plant closings. Late last year, GM announced it was "unallocating" two of its plants in Michigan, one in Maryland and one in Ohio. That means the plants will get no new products for now. Essentially, they've been shut down. 

Kristin Dziczek is an analyst with the Center for Automotive Research.

"So that was a big sticking point about what would become of those four factories in the U.S.," says Dziczek. "And we still don't know, because we haven't seen the tentative agreement and how they resolved that issue."

But Dziczek says most of the strikers understand that any contract involves compromise. 

"They've been out on the line so long and missed so many paychecks that I think that people will still find a way to ratify it," she says.

If the National Council approves the tentative contract, local union officials will call meetings with the rank and file to explain the terms. 

A vote from the rank and file would be the next step. That could take a week or so. The union could choose to send workers back to their plants during the ratification process, or keep them on the picket line. 

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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