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UAW-represented janitors at some GM plants go on strike; impact on auto production unclear

Jamie L. LaReau, Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — The four-year contract between General Motors and the United Auto Workers expired early Sunday as janitors employed by Aramark who are represented by the union walked off the job at GM locations in Michigan and Ohio.

The move could disrupt some vehicle production as soon as Sunday if GM autoworkers also represented by the UAW honor the janitors' picket lines.

GM said, “We have contingency plans in place to cover any potential disruptions.”

The strike involves 850 Aramark employees who have been working under a contract extension. Last week, the UAW notified Aramark that the extension would expire at midnight Saturday, the same time the union's contract with the Detroit Three automakers was set to expire.

The union, negotiating with GM for a new deal for autoworkers, extended contracts for Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, but told GM Saturday that it would not extend its contract. The UAW said, though, that autoworkers would report for Sunday shifts at GM plants. 

GM has outsourced many of its plant janitorial jobs and some other operational work to Aramark. Aramark manages service jobs at five GM sites: Flint Assembly, Flint Engine Operations, Flint Metal Center; the Metal Center Parma, Ohio,  and the Technical Center in Warren.

Tommy Wolikow works at Flint Assembly, where Aramark provides the factory's main custodial staff. News of the strike shocked him, and he said he was unsure what to do when his shift starts at 10 p.m. Sunday.

“I don’t think the UAW will let us cross the picket line,” said Wolikow. “I wouldn’t want to anyways. But I haven’t been told anything.”

Mario Washington. though, was due to work at Flint Assembly at 6:48 a.m. and he planned to do so.

“We gotta go to work,” said Washington. “If I don’t go to work, I get a write-up. It’s contract time and the company gets touchy with discipline procedures. The UAW told us to report to work. It’s an unfortunate thing, but everyone is going to go to work.”

Washington said he will be working at 10 a.m. Sunday when UAW leadership and the presidents of GM locals are meeting in Detroit. He will be awaiting instructions from the UAW.

“I’ll be in the plant and they’ll tell us either they extended the contract or come in there and tell us we’re on strike,” said Washington.

Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkley, said the janitor strike "amounts to a potentially significant escalation."

"It depends on what the contingency plan is, but GM has plans to seek to continue operations despite a strike. We don’t know the details, it might just be to rely on other parts plants," he said. "But if the contingency is to continue operations despite picket lines, that would unusual and unprecedented. If it involves crossing picket lines or running operations with supervisors, that would amount to an escalation. We don’t know, but putting this out there right at the opening is an escalation.”

“We have UAW members who work long, hard hours and are still on public assistance,” said Gerald Kariem, director of UAW Region 1D. “It’s shameful.”

Key issues for the janitors involve wages, caps on health insurance, vacation time and 401(k) plans, the union said.

Autoworker contract talks

Regarding the autoworker contract with GM, UAW leadership told members late Saturday afternoon that "significant differences" remained over key issues and bargaining would continue right up to the deadline.

In a letter sent to union officers Saturday evening, Terry Dittes, vice president for the UAW General Motors Department, said the contract with GM would not be extended, but no immediate autoworker strike was contemplated. 

"No decisions or actions will be taken" until after a National Council meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. in Detroit, the letter said. 

In the letter obtained by the Free Press, Dittes reported "some progress" in negotiations since his last update some nine days ago.

But, "We still have many outstanding issues remaining, including significant differences between the parties on wages, health care benefits, temporary employees, job security and profit sharing."

General Motors said in a statement: “We continue to work hard on solutions to some very difficult challenges. We are prepared to negotiate around the clock because there are thousands of GM families and their communities — and many thousands more at our dealerships and suppliers — counting on us for their livelihood."

American autormakers: Biggest issues facing UAW, Detroit 3 as contract deadline nears

History lesson?: UAW workers brace for potential strike, remember the unity of past walkouts

The UAW, which represents nearly 150,000 hourly workers at GM, Ford and FCA, has chosen to negotiate a new contract first with GM. That deal will serve as a template for the UAW's later talks with the other two. 

UAW local leaders have been outlining to members the procedure to follow if they are told to strike.

Autoworker strike seen as likely

Many believe a strike is a liklihood given union members’ resistance to making concessions after doing so during the Great Recession to help Detroit automakers survive. 

Also, the union is bitter over GM's decision announced last fall that it would indefinitely idle four of its U.S. plants. The UAW has vowed to leave no stone unturned in fighting to get new product to build in those plants, which include Lordstown Assembly in Ohio, Detroit-Hamtramck and transmission plants in Warren and Baltimore.

The talks are playing out against the backdrop of a federal corruption investigation now touching the highest levels of the union. Charges against regional director Vance Pearson implicated UAW President Gary Jones and immediate past President Dennis Williams in the misuse of union money.

The union negotiates a new contract with the automakers every four years. In 2015 the UAW chose to lead with FCA. If the UAW leadership believes it must strike, members at all three companies have voted to authorize one. 

The bargaining with GM has progressed methodically. Both sides faced a lot of issues at the table. 

The UAW's rank and file want a base wage increase. They also seek to protect benefits and to narrow the wage gap between workers hired after 2007 compared with those who've worked at GM before 2007. They also want to establish a plan for temporary employees to go permanent, among other things. 

But job security is critical too given GM's November 2018 announcement that it would idle four U.S. plants. Detroit-Hamtramck is the only one continuing to operate, but GM plans to shut it down in January. 

For its part, GM and other automakers seek to control costs amid trade and tariff uncertainties, unclear fuel economy standards and a predicted economic downturn on the horizon that could hurt sales. Health care costs are some of the highest for automakers and that also remains an issue.

Contributed: Associated Press

Follow Jamie L. LaReau on Twitter @jlareauan.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: UAW deal with GM expires as risk of strike increases