Antiwar, US Politics and Labor

No Vote Allowed on Half Wages in Detroit-area Auto Plant

By Jane Slaughter

The United Auto Workers have signed an agreement to let General Motors pay half wages to 40 percent of its employees at a suburban Detroit assembly plant. The “Tier 2” workers would make roughly $14 working alongside so-called “legacy” or Tier 1 workers making the current production wage, about $28.

GM and the UAW apparently learned a lesson from a recent defeat at an Indianapolis stamping plant, where workers voted 457-96 not to accept half-pay. Members at the Lake Orion, Michigan, plant were not allowed to vote on their new wages.

Instead, they were told, the germ of the idea had been included in the national contract ratified in 2009 when GM was on the verge of bankruptcy and seeking government help. The national contract contained language saying the UAW would help GM produce a small car profitably by “looking for innovative ways to staff the plant,” said Mike Dunn, shop chair at UAW Local 5960. The language, in fact, says only that: that company and union “will work arrive at innovative ways to staff these operations” (page 100). Lake Orion was chosen as the lucky plant and is now being retooled to produce the subcompact Aveo and compact Verano.

Automotive News quoted veteran auto consultant Ron Harbour’s estimate that the move will save GM all of $112 per car.

Union meeting in shock

At a large October 3 union meeting, workers were told they could not vote but would have options. The first 800-900 production workers called back would work at the full wage and benefits. The rest of the 1,588-person workforce could come back as Tier 2 workers (with full benefits), wait for an eventual Tier 1 opening created by retirement, or hope to get hired at another GM plant elsewhere.

Deb Malott, who hired in ten years ago, said the meeting was full of “a lot of angry people, a lot of disbelief. We were in shock. We had no idea.” Malott came home and began contacting all her friends on Facebook. Production workers have been laid off from the idled plant since last November.

Dawn Maturen, the wife of a Lake Orion worker, said different groups within the plant are organizing to figure out a response, including an October 16 rally. “Men and women that have the same mortgages, the same amount of children, doing the same work, but one group will be for half pay-we think that goes against human dignity,” she said.

Working for less

Malott hired in at $15.60 a decade ago, “a good wage,” she said. “But my lifestyle has changed since then. I took out loans to send my kids to college based on $29 an hour.”

Asked what it would be like in the plant with members working at different wages, Malott said, “I would still go in and do my job and do a good job, but some people would probably not put the extra step in it to make sure the job is done right.

“I’m sure there’ll be resentment there, especially the way it’s gone down. GM doesn’t make you feel like you’re worth anything. They want the cheaper people in there.”

Nick Waun said low-seniority workers like him had been “lied to for an entire year. They repeatedly told us ‘there’s no way you can be booted down to two-tier wages.’ We sat waiting for an entire year to go back to work, and they spring this on us at the last minute.”

Malott is not hopeful about other work. In the last ten months of layoff GM has offered her only “flex” jobs of one or two days a week.

Maturen’s spouse is on his third plant, 70 miles away from their home, as he’s bounced around the GM system. They’ve got three kids. Her husband has 11 years seniority, and she thinks he’ll be in Tier 2. “Eventually Tier 1 workers will all be Tier 2,” she says. “We’ve realized in watching how things have worked that if we don’t stand up now, no one will have good-paying jobs.”

Thirty-two-year veteran Tom Hopp, who transferred to Lake Orion from the now-shuttered Saturn plant, called the move “more of the same from the UAW. It’s a form of discrimination. Those people won’t forget that we didn’t stand up for them when we needed to.”

Congressman Gary Peters issued a press release taking credit for the reopening of the plant but neglecting to mention the concessions.

Maturen is among those organizing a rally at the UAW’s Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit October 16 to protest the new plan and show the “human face of auto workers” demonized in the media. Their leaflet says, “Real solidarity isn’t tiered!” Rank and filers are designing buttons with messages like “Why do all of your solutions involve my money?”

Dan Theisen, an electrician at Lake Orion, circulated his thoughts on the subject:

An injury to one-An injury to all!

An injury to 40 percent... Just business.

Labor Notes, October 7 2010`