Auto/Economy
2:14 pm
Thu September 29, 2011

In Lansing, Michigan, little jubilation over UAW-General Motors deal

DELTA TOWNSHIP, Mich. – Auto workers at the Lansing Delta Township Assembly plant make some of General Motors’ most popular vehicles.

The GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave are all produced inside this 3.4-million square-foot facility on the outskirts of Lansing, which is Michigan’s state capital.

In August, when GM announced an 18 percent sales increase from 2010, GMC led the turnaround with a 40.3 percent increase. Chevrolet had gained 15.8 percent.

So when contract negotiations began last month, the plant’s 3,430 hourly workers expected they’d be sharing in the company’s improved position. But when they saw the proposed deal between the United Auto Workers and GM, many members of UAW Local 602 here felt jilted instead.

They rejected the deal — a rarity for a contract approved by two-thirds of GM workers nationwide.

“The concessions we’ve made were supposed to be concessions, and with the stroke of a pen, they’ve made it all permanent,” said Jan Ward, a long-time employee who voted against the contract. “We did whatever we had to do to make them viable. Now they’re more than viable, and they just snubbed our nose, and said, ‘Too bad for you.’”

The majority of workers here agreed. Among Local 602 members, 66 percent of production workers and 57 percent of skilled trade workers voted against the contract.

In national voting, the percentages were nearly reversed: Sixty-five percent of UAW production workers and 63 percent of skilled trade workers approved the agreement, which was ratified Wednesday. Of the 81 UAW locals participating in the voting, Local 602 was one of only three to vote against the contract.

As first shift workers at the Delta Assembly plant departed Wednesday afternoon, they cited a variety of reasons for the local departure from national sentiment.

Some said concern over local union issues had spilled into voting on the national vote. (Local 602 president Bill Reed could not be reached for comment).

But the most-cited reason for the negative swing in Lansing was a feeling by veteran workers that they gained nothing from the contract.

“We’re really disappointed that GM didn’t give more back to us after all we’ve given to them,” said Larry Larner, who has employed by the company for 35 years. “They’ve always said they don’t like the adversarial approach. If they don’t like it, why don’t they come to us and say, ‘Look, we realize you gave up a lot, and we’ll try to give back to you.’”

Veteran workers got no raises, although there are raises in the contract for recently hired workers, known as “two-tiers.” Cost of living allowances, which were lost as part of the GM bailout, remain a thing of the past.

Larner said he reluctantly voted in favor of the contract. After years of union concessions in bargaining, he said, “We managed to keep what we had.” But his weariness in the face of those continued retreats mirrored the demeanor of many workers who voted no.

“We’re getting beat up,” said one 30-year employee who requested his name be withheld. “I don’t believe the union bargained in good faith. They’re looking out for themselves. GM is looking out for itself. And we’re not getting any help from either side.”

Veteran workers, their numbers diminishing, felt squeezed.

In 2005, GM had 110,000 hourly production workers, according to a presentation by CEO Daniel Akerson to Wall Street analysts Wednesday. Today, GM has approximately 49,000 hourly workers, less than half from six years ago.

The UAW said in a written statement that the new deal will create 6,400 new jobs in the United States. But under terms of the contract, up to 25 percent of GM’s workforce can now be comprised of “two-tiers,” entry-level workers who will make about $8 less per hour than veteran counterparts. Now, two-tiers comprise 4 percent of the overall workforce.

Veteran employees at Delta Assembly fear a gradual wave of two-tiers, a slide in their own standard of living and a reduced vision of whatever comes next.

“ I don’t see where we gained anything in this, really,” said Tammy, a 26-year veteran who only gave her first name. “I thought maybe they’d get our cost of living back for us. That didn’t happen.”

She went on, “It only catered to the entry-level workers. The union let them agree to it. So where do you think we’ll be in a few years? We’re going to be dinosaurs.”

Changing Gears is a Michigan Radio project looking at the economic transformation of the Midwest.