You may not have noticed, but the United Auto Workers union has been holding its bargaining convention in Detroit this week.
Every four years, union leaders get together to plan and map out their strategy for negotiating a new contract with the automakers. Once, this convention was an enormous deal, intensely covered by both local and national labor media.
The big question every time was - which company would be the strike target?
Years ago, the union came up with the concept of “pattern bargaining.” One company - Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler, would be selected as the target. Union officials would then try and hammer out a contact with that automaker first.
Sometimes they’d have to go on strike to achieve that; sometimes not. Meanwhile, the workers at the other companies would keep working under the old labor agreements.
Once the new contract was finally hammered out, the unions would then go to the other two automakers and say -- “okay; this is what we negotiated with them; this is what you need to agree to as well. No fooling around; take it or leave it; sign or we walk.”
That’s how it’s been done for many, many years. In the past, there were sometimes historic strikes which led to historic settlements that gradually won the workers everything from paid vacations to profit sharing to dental care, on top of high wages.
But as all the world knows, excesses and globalization caught up with the auto companies. General Motors and Chrysler nearly went out of business less than two years ago. They survived in part because the union was willing to make major concessions.
New hires, for example, now make half of what a longtime autoworker does -- $14 an hour, or $29,000 a year. The union decided that and other sacrifices were necessary to keep their employers alive.
Well, the world is different now. Ford and General Motors are now making profits in the billions. Chrysler is believed close to profitability, and at any rate, has a new owner with deep pockets.