Tuesday, March 27, 2007

UAW workers feel givebacks unavoidable

Tuesday, March 20, 2007
UAW workers feel givebacks unavoidable
Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

The day he got home from the Army 37 years ago was the day Angelo Bruno got a job as a painter at Ford Motor Co.'s Michigan Truck Plant. He's been proud of his career -- until now. The automaker's woes have forced changes at the plant that have left him as angry with his union as he is at Ford.

Bruno is not alone. More than two dozen United Auto Workers members told The Detroit News they fault union leaders for being too willing to agree to concessions Detroit automakers say they need to help restore profits.

Yet with critical contract talks coming this summer, Bruno and others say they will try to swallow their ire and accept a deal that likely will bring more cuts.

"It was a great ride," Bruno said. "But now globalization is killing us. We've got no choice."

Many workers are trying to balance their growing mistrust of the union with the stark realization that the companies they work for are losing billions of dollars as they struggle to compete against more efficient foreign rivals with lower-paid, largely nonunion, work forces.

Bruno, for instance, believes a recent vote held by his local UAW that authorized Ford to make major work rule changes at the plant, such as shifting to a 10-hour-a-day, four-day work week, was "rigged."

He and other Michigan Truck workers said turnout was deliberately kept low because they had to scramble through a snowstorm to vote at the local union hall. Traditionally, votes have been held inside the plant, Bruno said.

So for the first time in his career, Bruno is listening intently to dissident rank-and-file workers such as the Soldiers of Solidarity and is considering filing formal grievances against the UAW.

'It's a betrayal'

Despite his "growing despair," however, Bruno says he's willing to approve a national contract this fall that analysts predict could cut his pay, make him dig deeper to pay for his health care, and possibly thin his pension.

"It's a betrayal," Bruno said. "I don't think anyone's being honest with us. I just hope I can stomach it." But he admits times have changed for him and even a lower-paying Ford job is probably better than anything else he could get.

"I'm 55 years old," he said. "The economy would eat me up."

Top UAW officials declined to discuss the coming contract talks, but auto companies have clearly signaled they intend to pursue terms that will lower their labor and so-called "legacy costs" -- health care, pension and retiree benefits.

Al Benchich, president of UAW Local 909, says many local union officials are trying to "balance on a tight rope." He represents workers at General Motors Corp.'s powertrain plant in Warren.

"Everyone knows the situation the auto industry finds itself in," he said. "We are trying to determine a strategy based in reality."

Disillusionment among the rank-and-file runs deep partly because the union has been so effective at protecting its workers, said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He has close ties to the UAW and automakers.

"They've dodged a lot of bullets, but the bullets are whizzing by a lot closer now," Shaiken said. "Despite the decades-long retrenching of the Big Three, there has never been this scale of layoffs. The UAW has always achieved some hard-fought gains" during labor negotiations.

When the current national contract was negotiated four years ago, GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group faced serious challenges. They were steadily losing market share even as they spent heavily on sales incentives. They needed to reduce their labor cost disadvantage, especially health care.

The UAW ultimately agreed to close some plants and introduce more money-saving flexibility into factories, but also won pay gains and retained medical benefits and job protections, such as continuing to pay workers who had been laid off.

Economy is different

Industry conditions are even tougher for Detroit going into this year's talks. Together, GM, Ford and Chrysler are losing money, cutting tens of thousands of jobs and closing factories. Chrysler is on the selling block. Meanwhile, foreign-owned auto plants thrive in the nonunion South, and automakers increasingly are shifting production to Mexico, China and other low-wage countries. Such changes are generating a huge outcry among autoworkers.

Bill Hanline, a veteran worker at Delphi Corp's Athens, Ala., plant, is trying to recruit workers and retirees to join a class-action lawsuit against the UAW, GM and Delphi to force GM to take over Delphi's pension responsibilities.

And many workers like Al Figlan, a skilled tradesman at Ford's Van Dyke Transmission plant, are battling their union even as they are bracing for givebacks at contract time. Figlan's overtime income has been eliminated -- a loss of about $60,000 gross annually.

Figlan says he and the other remaining skilled trades workers are not allowed to build an assembly system that takes up one-third of the plant, the kind of job that once defined his career. The line is being installed by outside contractors.

Figlan has filed 57 grievances against the UAW because of work rule changes and has hired an attorney. Still, he doesn't intend to file a lawsuit; he just wants his complaints heard.

"I know we got to give something back in the contract," Figlan said. "But unless it's fair, I don't know how they expect us to swallow it."

Labor expert Shaiken disputes the idea that UAW leaders have sold out the rank-and-file. "They are not going to sacrifice the gains it took 60 years for them to build," he said. "They are very realistic about how tough times are right now. You've got constructive discussions between both sides. Both sides want to see healthier companies."

You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 or laguilar@detnews.com.

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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