Strike looms as UAW-Fiat Chrysler talks sour – Detroit Free Press
Discussions between the UAW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles aimed at restructuring a tentative agreement overwhelmingly rejected by workers reached a critical juncture with the union issuing a strike notice Tuesday that the current agreement will expire at midnight Wednesday.
Throughout the day Tuesday thousands of workers received strike instructions from their union stewards and local leaders as anxiety at plants ramped up and workers at some plants expressed confusion over whether or not their plant would be included in a possible strike.
A notice issued to workers at Warren Truck Assembly said negotiations were still ongoing, but said, “In the event an agreement is unable to be reached or an extension is not agreed upon and a strike is called ….members are to take their personal belongings and IMMEDIATELY exit the building in an orderly and dignified manner.”
The question looming over negotiators now is whether teams representing the UAW and Fiat Chrysler can solve a myriad of complex issues before the strike deadline expires. The stakes for both the automaker and the union are extremely high.
“Once a strike starts, it’s kind of like letting a genie out of a bottle — you don’t know what is going to happen,” said Gary Klotz, a labor law attorney and partner at Butzel Long in Detroit.
There remains, however, the possibility that the two sides are actually making progress and the strike preparations are designed to appease unhappy UAW members who are angry at their union leaders for a tentative contract last month that did not live up to their expectations.
“From UAW point of view, it would almost be more politically astute to get everyone go out on strike if it were a way to serve as safety valve,” Klotz said.
Last week, 65% of Fiat Chrysler workers voted against a tentative agreement that UAW President Dennis Williams and other union officials recommended.
In the wake of that historic defeat Williams gathered the unions top UAW-Chrysler officials from across the country to figure out what could be done to restructure the agreement and decided to restart discussions with the automaker.
The contract workers rejected would have provided all workers with a $3,000 signing bonus and wages for entry-level workers in assembly plants would have increased from $15.78 per hour to $19.28 per hour and workers hired before 2007 would have received two 3% wage increases and two lump-sum bonuses over the life of the contract.
The proposed contract also included a new health care cooperative for all active UAW auto workers that would work to negotiate better rates and treatments from health providers without an increase for what workers pay.
While workers voted against the agreement for many reasons many cited a lack of information about the health care cooperative and fears it would lead to higher health care costs, concerns about the company’s plans to move the production of the Chrysler 200 and the Dodge Dart from the U.S.to Mexico and frustration over the lack of a pathway for wages for entry level workers to increase to the $28 per hour that older workers make. Anger over new work schedules put in place a few years ago and a new, proposed attendance policy also are high on the list of worker objections.
On Tuesday, UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell sent a letter today to the company’s top negotiator Glenn Shagana, vice president of employee relations at FCA, giving formal notification that the union is terminating the current agreement that had been extended while negotiations continued. The letter said all agreements are terminated as of Wednesday at 11:59 p.m.
The UAW’s notice appears to be a serious threat — not symbolic posturing — according to a UAW official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of strike preparations.
The UAW’s elected leaders are told to pick up picket signs, the person said. That is different than on Sept. 14, when the expiration of the current four-year contract was approaching, the person said. Some UAW officials also are being asked to meet with plant management to make contingency plans and assign a limited number of workers to keep some essential operations running if there is a strike.
However, the automaker signaled a less dire picture than the strike notice appears to suggest.
“FCA US confirms that it has received strike notification from the UAW,” the said in a statement Tuesday. “The company continues to work with the UAW in a constructive manner to reach a new agreement,” the statement continues, suggesting talks may be continuing at some level.
A strike could begin at just one plant. Workers at all other FCA plants would continue to work until the supply of whatever the striking plant produces forces engine and transmission plants, then assembly plants to lay off workers.
“The union has two options,” said Arthur Schwartz, retired director of labor relations at General Motors and now a consultant. “They can call a strike at Fiat Chrysler and say ‘we’re going to GM or Ford.’ Or they can keep their workers at FCA on the job and move to one of the others.”
Striking workers would be eligible for strike pay from the union unless. Those who are laid off would be eligible to file for unemployment compensation unless the company can prove their layoffs are the direct result of a strike.
If the UAW were to call a strike, it might not necessarily tell workers at all plants to stop working. In fact, analysts say its more likely that the UAW would target key plants.
So far, the Free Press is able to confirm that strike instructions have been issued at UAW Local 1166, which represents workers at a casting plant in Kokomo. Ind., by UAW Local 372, which represents workers at an engine plant in Trenton, UAW Local 140, which represents workers at a pickup truck plant in Warren, Michigan, UAW Local 7, which represents workers at Jefferson North Assembly and UAW Local 1264, which represents workers at a stamping plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
The strike deadline postings are ambiguous, said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Labor & Industry Group at the Center for Automotive Research..“It doesn’t tell the membership where things stand.”
It might be a transitional state until the UAW international executive board authorizes a walkout, she said.
A national walkout or strike would threaten to quickly destabilize Fiat Chrysler, which has been profitable in recent years, but is the weakest company of the Detroit Three. It also could do tremendous damage to the relationship between the union and the company that has markedly improved in recent years compared with prior decades.
“They don’t have to go long if they do strike,” Dziczek said. “A strike causes pain on both sides and applies pressure to get back to the table.”
Striking costs each individual in the pocketbook and is not done lightly, said Dziczek, who predicted from the start that a strike was likely at FCA but takes no delight knowing that she might be proven right.
“It is a financial strain to walk the picket line for $200 a week.”
A targeted strike at pinch points like the Kokomo transmission plant would mean a few thousand workers would have to rely on $200 in weekly strike pay while workers at other plants that go down because they can’t build vehicles without transmissions would receive unemployment benefits and not be hurt as much financially by a walkout.
Targeted strikes don’t put as big a dent in the UAW’s strike fund, but Dziczek said the fund is big and that is not a concern. Nor does she think a strike would be lengthy.
Historically, UAW strikes have ranged in duration from hours to weeks.
In 2007, there was a two-day national strike at General Motors and a 6.5-hour targeted strike at Chrysler. In 1998, workers at GM’s plant in Flint went on strike in 1998 for 54 days and in 1976 Ford workers were on strike for 28 days during a national strike.
Fiat Chrysler will be most hurt by the idling of the Kokomo transmission plant and the vehicle assembly plants in Toledo and Jefferson North that make popular Jeeps and the Warren Truck plant that makes the Ram full-size pickup.
“That would hit Fiat Chrysler where it hurts,” Dziczek said.
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