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Detroit automakers, UAW, begin "defining" contract talks this week

General Motors

Detroit automakers kick off bargaining talks with the United Auto Workers union this week to negotiate the next four-year contract.

Harley Shaiken is a labor expert with the University of California-Berkeley. He says these talks are more important than many in years past, and predicts they will be difficult, even though General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler are highly profitable right now.

"The concern of the companies is they're on the cusp of one of the largest, if not the largest change in auto history, that is autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles," he says. "So they're looking to minimize costs, but for the union, they're also looking at issues of job security."

General Motors announced last year it would close four plants in the U.S., including its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, and its Warren Transmission plant.

That could leave thousands of blue collar employees without work.

Shaiken says the union also hopes to get a contract that minimizes the automakers' reliance on temporary workers, especially Fiat Chrysler.

And the union also wants to reduce the big gap in pay between newly hired workers and longer-term workers. Currently, it takes about eight years for workers to close that gap in pay.

Shaiken say it's of note that the UAW voted to increase strike pay by 25% earlier this year. 

"I think no one wants a strike this time around," he says. "But the union has signaled by increasing the strike benefits, that it is prepared to strike, which of course gives it more leverage at the bargaining table."
Shaiken says "pattern bargaining," has become less important of a strategy to the union in recent talks. That's where the union chooses to hammer out an agreement with one automaker first, and then use that as a template to get the other two automakers to agree to similar terms.

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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