General Motors hourly workers Mike Yakim and Sean Crawford are lucky.
They each work at a GM factory pretty much guaranteed to keep building vehicles over the next four years. That's considered by union members to be job security.
Still, both men said they now think that the six-week strike against GM was not worth it in the end.
"I lost six weeks of pay and it didn’t accomplish its goal, product allocation being a goal," said Yakim. He works at GM's Lansing Delta Township Assembly plant, where he transferred after GM shuttered Lordstown Assembly in Ohio. He had hoped, during bargaining, the union would win new product to restart Lordstown.
"The allocation of products was tremendously important, and we didn’t get it," said Yakim, who lives in an apartment near Lansing. His family still lives in Lordstown. "That was the 'no' vote right there. We don’t have any guarantees."
In the contract, GM promised a $7.7 billion investment in U.S. manufacturing and to create or retain about 9,000 jobs over four years. The UAW GM department skimped on specifics in its initial highlights, but its more detailed "white book" listed investments in Lansing Delta, Spring Hill Assembly in Tennessee, Wentzville Assembly in Missouri, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly and the Warren Tech Center.
Still, that's five out of GM's 33 U.S. production facilities, whereas the UAW's tentative agreement with Ford Motor Co. provides detailed investment into all its U.S. facilities.
UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said the strike achieved gains for the union membership. "There will be substantial investments based on commitments outlined in the GM contract over the next four years," he said.
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More job security
The GM strike was effective, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor.
"It is easy to second guess it after the fact," said Shaiken. "But I think GM gave more in some critical areas that wouldn’t have been possible absent the strike."
But second-guessing is what some UAW members are doing in light of seeing the detailed Ford investments released Friday in that tentative agreement. It outlines exactly where Ford would invest $6 billion in U.S. manufacturing over the next four years and create or retain 8,500 jobs.
"I don’t think we got what we needed to get," said Crawford, who works at Flint Assembly. There, GM builds its top-selling Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, so Crawford isn't worried that GM will idle his factory. But he and Yakim think workers should have remained on strike longer to get a deal with promised and detailed job security.
“The details were scant to say the least at General Motors and the lack of equality in pay and lack of job security were the two biggest reasons I voted 'no' on the contract," said Crawford.
Union members at Ford have until Nov. 15 to vote on ratification for the proposal.
A spokesman for GM declined to comment on the lack of detailed plant investments, saying it was a UAW decision. A UAW spokesman said the union outlined in its highlights GM's total investment in U.S. manufacturing and the closures of three plants.
Listing detailed product investment and plant allocation was tricky for the UAW's GM Department, labor experts said. The union remained on strike until the tentative agreement was ratified. It would be illegal for a union to strike over product allocation to plants. That issue is considered "a permissive bargaining issue" only. Therefore, if UAW members did not ratify the tentative agreement and remained on strike, GM could protest it was an illegal strike if the rejection was due to an issue over product allocation.
Product allocation was a touchy subject for union members following GM's decision in November 2018 to close four U.S. plants: Detroit-Hamtramck, Lordstown and transmission plants in Warren and Baltimore. All are closed but Detroit-Hamtramck, where GM agreed to invest $3 billion to build an electric pickup, other electric vehicles and battery modules.
About 50 protesters showed up at the UAW National GM Council's Oct. 17 meeting in Detroit chanting, "No product, no vote." They wanted the council to reject the proposed tentative agreement with GM if the deal did not restart Lordstown.
UAW members at GM ratified the contract on Oct. 25 by 57%-43%. Crawford and Yakim believe the ratification happened because strikers voted their pocketbook.
“People were desperate for money,” said Crawford. “A lot of people were unprepared and couldn’t hold out as long as they needed to.”
Ford versus GM
Labor experts said the UAW Ford Department listed detailed investment plans also because they coincide with the company's ongoing business model, regardless of what changes might occur in the near-term auto environment, said Marick Masters, director of labor at Wayne State University.
"It’s also not clear from Ford’s presentation in the package how many of these are new commitments versus what Ford was already planning to do," said Masters. “GM doesn’t want to lock itself into commitments it has to break down the road because of the changing nature of the environment."
For example, a vehicle that's in demand today could go out of style tomorrow. Also, it's unknown when or whether consumers will shift to electric vehicles. And fluctuations in the economy are always likely, said Masters.
GM’s plan included $7.7 billion in investment compared to Ford’s $6 billion, but Ford’s appears to be more tantalizing because it’s more detailed, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of Industry, Labor & Economics at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor.
But in the 2015 contract, GM invested only $1.9 billion in U.S. manufacturing, said Dziczek. This $7.7 billion is a big win for the UAW, she said.
The labor experts said typically when members lose confidence in leadership, “there’s a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking” over whether the strike was a waste of time or not, said Masters.
The loss of confidence is grounded in the ongoing federal corruption probe into UAW leaders. On Saturday, UAW President Gary Jones said he would take a paid leave of absence. Jones was accused as "UAW Official A" in federal court papers Thursday of splitting up to $700,000 in union funds with another union official.
Saturday's development follows the latest criminal charges in the UAW corruption probe. Edward Robinson, a union official in Missouri, was accused Thursday in a criminal information of conspiracy to embezzle union money and to defraud the United States. Robinson's regional office was the same one Jones had once led. Vance Pearson, the current director of that office, Region 5, is on leave facing his own charges in the scandal. A dozen people – union and auto company officials – have been charged to date.
Before the strike
Despite the eroding trust in UAW leadership, labor experts said the strike won union members more cash and it sent a message to GM that workers were "extremely disappointed in how they were treated with the plant closures in November and to convey the urgency that GM invest in U.S. plants as it can going forward," said Masters.
The final offer did top GM's initial offer made to the UAW on Sept. 14, two hours before the 2015 contract expired. That deal included an $8,000 ratification bonus and 2% wage increase and a 2% lump sum increase. It also called for 5,400 new or retained jobs and $7 billion investment.
The final contract paid an $11,000 ratification bonus and included a 3% wage increase and 4% lump sum boost. It also increased the U.S. plant investment to $7.7 billion, creating or retaining 9,000 jobs.
The new GM contract will also get rid of long-term temporary worker status and it holds hourly workers' share of health care costs to 3%, both "very big wins," said Shaiken.
But as Dziczek noted, other details of GM's first proposed offer are unknown, so it's hard to speculate on the entire impact of the strike on product allocation.
Pay it forward
The strike did hurt GM, costing about $3 billion, according to company assessments when it outlined its third-quarter earnings. The automaker did get to sell down some excess vehicle inventory it had in stock, labor experts said.
Also, GM kept its strategy of major outsourcing to Mexico, said Shaiken. He blamed that more on trade policy than the bargaining process. He said U.S. trade policy helps enable Mexican workers to have very few rights and depressed wages in the export sector because "it’s almost impossible to form unions in that sector. Addressing that would not have been another week or two of the strike," but much longer and more complicated, Shaiken said.
The $3 billion impact "is real money. So the UAW has strength on the picket line and that’s what they showed," said Shaiken. "It also had that sense of solidarity. There’s something about a worker, who’s going to be retire soon, who says, 'I’ll stay out here so that that temp can have what I had.' That’s the strength of the UAW. There’s something very important about that and it will be very important for unions going forward.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: GM-UAW strike: Workers wonder whether stoppage was worth it