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What happens next with UAW contract?

Jack Lessenberry

Well, as you may know by now, the United Auto Workers union did an absolutely superb job negotiating a new contact with FCA, Fiat Chrysler.

Everybody in the industry was impressed by the result, with one exception, the workers themselves, who voted the contract down by more than a two to one margin.

What happens next is not clear. Analysts are saying the union could stage a partial or general strike. They could try to go back to the bargaining table with Sergio Marchionne, or they could move on to another automaker, and come back to Chrysler later.

Except none of that really matters, unless the union leaders first figure out how to reestablish solidarity with the workers they represent. I am by no means an industry expert. But when I heard the details of this new contract, I instantly thought there might be trouble.

Workers expected the elimination of the hated two-tier wage system, or at least the reinstatement of a strict cap on the percentage of lesser-paid new workers. This contract did none of that, though it did provide them with a substantial raise.

During the contract talks, both the union and the company behaved as though they had never heard of the concept of public relations. Jeep is Toledo’s iconic employer, but a month ago today, word surfaced that Chrysler planned to move production of the popular Cherokee model elsewhere. To the best of my knowledge, the union never said a word.

Chrysler production workers in Toledo voted 87 percent against this contract. Automotive News, the industry newspaper of record, reported that Chrysler planned to move production of two key models to Mexico. I didn’t hear much of a peep about that either.

The media beamed with approval when Marchionne and Dennis Williams, the union president, began the talks with a big bear hug that made them look like two old army buddies at a VFW hall. The rank-and-file weren’t impressed. The longtime workers haven’t had a raise, even for inflation, in close to a decade, though they have gotten a few bonuses.

The second tier workers, who usually don’t make enough to buy a house or maybe even a new car, weren’t thrilled either. Even more incredibly, the union did little to sell this agreement; the attitude seemed to be here, take this, it’s good for you.

Kristin Dziczek, the respected labor and industry analyst at the Center for Automotive Research, thought this should have been ratified. But she noted that the summary the UAW gave to its members totally failed to explain how a proposed new health care cooperative is supposed to work. Nor did union leaders take to Facebook or other social media, as they did four years ago, to explain and sell this contract.

This stupidity and arrogance are hard to justify, given that this is a union that once had 1.6 million members, and now doesn’t have even a fourth of that. Since the last contract was signed, Michigan, the cradle of the auto industry, has become a right-to-work state.

The UAW’s very future may be in jeopardy. Now, it is up to Dennis Williams and company to somehow fix this, fast.  In automotive terms, the whole world really is watching. 

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