Trucks Save UAW's "Green Car Compromise"

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

During the government’s bailout of General Motors, the UAW agreed to a number of concessions, including management’s ability to use “Innovative Labor Practices” in order to build a fuel-efficient subcompact car in the US. As a result, the 1,600 workers at the firm’s Lake Orion plant had a choice: the 800 most senior workers would return at the $28 “tier one” wage, while another 500 workers would be able to return only if they accepted a 50% pay cut, pushing them into the union’s “second tier” of wages. Workers forced into the tier two, which typically applies only to new hires, were not allowed to transfer to other Michigan plants, and could neither vote on the agreement, nor strike because of it. After all, the bailout’s green-tinged sales pitch meant that building a subcompact in the US was a politically necessary move, even if it went against every UAW principle… which is why it’s awfully ironic that the safety valve for this deteriorating situation is a factory building trucks.

Lake Orion worker have been protesting their union for months, becoming a lightning rod for criticism of the UAW’s two-tier wage system and union leadership’s willingness to sell out the rank-and-file. And now, GM and the popularity of its full-sized pickup trucks are coming to the rescue.

According to the Detroit Free Press, GM sent out a letter to the UAW’s Lake Orion workers, allowing Tier 1 employees to transfer to its Flint Assembly plant in order to keep from being bumped into the second tier. Of course, workers who accept this deal will no longer be enjoying the “green jobs” that are said to be the future of the business, as Flint builds Heavy-Duty versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra… and if Flint ever shuts down, Tier 1 workers won’t be able to return to Lake Orion as the goal is to make that plant 100% Tier 2. For now though, Tier 1 Orion workers’ options are

1. Choose to work in Flint. That may be an attractive option for the more than 600 workers who were already driving through the Flint area to work in Orion.

2. Apply for a spot working in Orion at the full wage. GM will fill those spots by seniority, so the workers choosing this option will be able to transfer to Flint if they don’t make the cut.

3. Stay in Orion, no matter what. If the worker’s seniority does not make him or her one of the about 800 making the full wage, this option indicates the worker will willingly take the 50% pay cut.

Many Orion workers had already transferred to plants such as Lordstown. If they accepted only a $4,800 relocation bonus, they retained rights to come back to Orion after six months. That would qualify them to choose one of the options in the letter.

By working to mop-up the bad feelings at Lake Orion, GM is signaling that it’s taking UAW resentment of the “Innovative Labor Practices” seriously. Unfortunately, that resentment is increasingly with the two-tier system itself, and this decision only keeps Tier 1 workers from falling into Tier 2… the system that breeds shop-floor resentment remains. Moreover, the Tier 1 workers who are transferring to Flint may have kept their higher wage level, but they’ve traded any job security that comes with working at a fuel-efficient car plant. If gas prices spike, HD pickup production will be the first to get cut, and the UAW’s Tier 1 Gypsies will be on the move again.

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  • TomLU86 TomLU86 on Jan 29, 2011

    Quite a conundrum for the UAW leadership, and the rank & file. Since the UAW is now a stockholder in the form of VEBA (which the UAW expects to increase in value--good luck with that), how will the UAW leadership balance the needs of retirees vs active workers. Does the UAW serve the current workers who (must) pay union dues, or does the UAW seek to preserve the benefits of retirees, who don't pay dues, but who are counting on the VEBA to increase in value. Tough call. But looking at the world around us, the sad fact is that our society, at all levels, promised benefits that we cannot afford. Corporations are no longer offering defined-benefit pensions, and those that have them are watering them down, ending them, or defaulting on them. Public pensions are forcing cities to lay off cops and firemen because they can't raise taxes fast enough to pay the retired cops pensions! So, with that in mind, the UAW leadership might want to start gently nudging the retirees to save money for things like retirement and health care, because it's unlikely VEBA will make cut, and the tidal wave will work against 'gold-plated' retiree health benefits'. If the union could somehow motivate non-unionized Americans to "buy American", it would help. A lot! But sadly, most people don't care or, worse, the products they want are no longer even made in USA--like flat-screen TVs. Also, rather than defenders of the working man and woman, thanks to the masterful job municipal unions have done with their gold-plated retirements, those Americans who are not union members or govt workers will increasingly view unions with skepticism. The UAW is a key reason why US auto plants have fewer recordable on-the-job injuries than the transplants---a feat all the more impressive considering the average UAW autoworker is probably 15 yrs older than the average transplant worker, and older people are more prone to strains and sprains. That's what the UAW should pitch--"we want all workers to work in the safest, most reasonable environment". That's one area the union and mgt can agree on because, while it costs time and money up front to create a safer workplace, it is cheaper in the long run for mgt. And it is better for employees! And if some UAW locals would accept job rotation, things would be even better for their remaining workers. Just some rambling thoughts.....

  • Canuck129 Canuck129 on Jan 30, 2011

    It looks like they still kept their eye care benefits. Good for them.

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  • RICK Once had 78 TOWN COUPE and wish I had never let it go! Ultimate OTT excessive luxury! Have since had RWD FLEETWOODS, RWD Fifth Avenues ,as well as 89 Lincoln Town Car Signature Series and current 2007 TOWN CAR Signature Limited! All great cars, but 77 through 79 was KING 🤴 of the road! So sad to see what is now considered a luxury vehicle 😢. Who wants to drive a glorified truck 🚚?
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