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The new Chrysler deal

Jack Lessenberry

I’m not in the least surprised that the United Autoworkers Union reached a new agreement with Fiat Chrysler late last night. Nobody, but nobody wanted a strike.

I did think it possible that the union might have workers put down tools and walk off the job for a few hours in an effort to remind the rank-and-file of their heritage.

But if there had been a serious strike, the only winner would have been Toyota.

This isn’t the 1950s, after all, or even the 80s. What we don’t know yet, however, is whether this new agreement will be perceived as putting lipstick on a pig.

In other words, essentially the same contract workers decisively rejected a little over a week ago. It’s hard for me to think that the union went back to the bargaining table and without much difficulty won new major concessions from Sergio Marchionne.

But the company doesn’t want a strike either. That’s roughly the same reason we never had a nuclear war: Both sides want to avoid Mutual Assured Destruction. We probably won’t know the details until at least tomorrow, but my guess is the union may have managed to win some new small concessions.

The union also hopefully will do a much better job explaining the contract and its benefits than it did a couple of weeks ago, especially the health care cooperative.

The contact workers rejected really was not all that bad. But union leaders faced a revolution of rising expectations, and did nothing to either satisfy worker demand for things like an immediate end to the two-tier wage system, or convey what they felt was realistic and possible.

I think UAW President Dennis Williams and the union leadership made a smart decision in choosing to go back to the bargaining table with Chrysler after the first contract was rejected, rather than trying Ford or General Motors first. The union would have been in a weakened position if they tried elsewhere without succeeding with Chrysler workers first.

What is absolutely clear is that Williams and the UAW have an enormous amount at stake now. If the rank-and-file vote this down, it seems to me Williams would need to resign, since he will have received what amounts to a double vote of no confidence.

And that’s not all. The union’s very long-term survival may be at stake.

The UAW has only one-quarter of its peak membership forty years ago. Something like a third of its members aren’t in the automotive sector at all. And for the first time ever, they are negotiating these contracts in what is now a right-to-work state.

Workers no longer have to join the UAW.

They are free to leave, and you can bet their doing so would make both the Mackinac Center and Signore Marchionne very happy. I’m not predicting that will happen, but it could, and the UAW leaders are very aware of that.

It took guts for the workers, some of whom haven’t a raise in years, to turn down the first contract. It may take a different kind of guts, sense and sensibility to approve this one, even if it is less than perfect. We don’t yet know. We do know that the whole automotive world is watching.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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