GM Workers Protest UAW Decision

Union says they have to 'get rid of the two-tier wages and get back what we've lost'

With General Motors Corp. inching towards an initial public offering of stock, nearly 200 workers and retirees have turned up for a demonstration outside the gates of United Auto Workers headquarters, underscoring the automaker's tenuous relations with union members.

The demonstration on Oct. 16 was organized by workers from automaker's assembly plant in Orion, Michigan to protest the UAW's decision, allowing GM to assign workers with seniority of 10 years to a second-wage tier that would require them to take a 50% cut in pay.

"They didn't tell us anything until the very last minute," said Nick Waun, a member of UAW Local 5960. He noted union officials had kept quiet about the potential for steep pay cuts for more than a year.

"Workers have the right to vote on pay cuts," he said.

Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committee member at the Ford Motor Co. pickup plant, who led a successful grass roots campaign against concessions at Ford last year, also spoke at the rally, saying the issue of what happens at the Orion plant is vital to all union members.

"These are all the kind of issues we have to address next year at Ford, GM and Chrysler," Walkowitz said. "We have to get rid of the two-tier wages and get back what we've lost," he said.

"If we can't get rid of two tiers here, we're all in trouble," said Kevin Kasper, a UAW member for Mansfield, Ohio.

The UAW approved second-tier wages, starting at $14.50 per hour for new workers in its 2007 contracts with GM, Ford and Chrysler.

"They didn't tell us it could apply to workers with seniority," Waun said.

The protest also drew Indianapolis, Indiana, where member of UAW Local 23 overwhelming defeated calls for concessions.

Local 23 members voted against concessions, saying rather see the plant close than accept a 50-percent pay cut. The plant is now scheduled to close next year.

Greg Clark, the UAW bargaining chairman at the Indianapolis plants, said workers are fed up with concessions.

"I just did what the members wanted," he said.

In addition to the demonstration by the Orion workers and the vote in Indianapolis, there also was a union-management dispute over work assignment at GM's big assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

GM and the UAW have a long history of conflict and the continuing signs of unrest could ultimately influence investor's decision to buy the new GM stock, said Brad Coulter, an analyst with management consulting firm of O'Keege & Associates in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

He warned that while there's been a change in management, GM has a history of destroying shareholder value, and the UAW has been a large reason for that destruction.

"The UAW has a long history of shareholders be damned and I'm not convinced the rank and file have bought into the new reality," Coulter said.

Harley Shaiken, a University of California at Berkley labor expert, said the UAW executive board's basic strategy through the crisis in the U.S. car industry has been to make temporary concessions to protect jobs.

In the future, the union can always bargain for pay increases for workers hired with second-tier wages.

In the case of Orion, GM actually agreed to bring production of a small subcompact to Detroit rather than build it in Asia.

In return, the UAW quietly agreed to a unique split while staffing the plant.

Sixty percent of the 1,300 production workers would continue to get the $29 per hour wage, while 40%, including some with seniority, would get $14.50 per hour.

Kristin Dzicek, a labor expert at the Center For Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said GM's real objective is to get workers to transfer to other GM plants or retire. "This could be much ado about nothing," said Dzicek, who doubts many employees with seniority will actually have to take a pay cut.

Instead the goal is to staff the subcompact assembly line at Orion completely with workers making $14.50 per hour when the plant begins making small Chevrolets and Buicks.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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