UAW president, having won concessions from strikes, aims to expand membership to non-union automakers

DETROIT (AP) — Going into contract talks with Detroit’s three automakers, Sean Fine set high expectations for what he could earn for his union members — and he delivered on a lot of them. He received significant wage increases, improved benefits, the right to strike against factory closures and a host of other privileges.

But for the UAW president, the agreements that emerged from talks marked by six weeks of strikes were just the beginning of a winning streak and renaissance for the 88-year-old union. Now, Fine has set his latest ambitious goal: gaining UAW membership at non-union companies across the industry — from foreign automakers with U.S. operations like Toyota to electric car makers like Tesla to electric car battery factories that are more likely to represent A large share of automotive jobs in the United States. The coming decades.

Indeed, Fine confirmed in an interview with The Associated Press, the contracts benefited workers at nonunion auto companies: Shortly after the UAW won big pay raises for its workers, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan — all nonunion companies — raised theirs. “The push is in what Fine described as an apparent attempt to prevent the UAW from unionizing its workforce.

Last week, workers at GM, Ford and Stellantis collectively voted 64% to ratify the new settlement deals, which are among the richest contracts in the UAW’s 88-year history. The agreements ended many salary levels, gave temporary hires better pay and a path to full-time employment, and boosted from about 6% to 10% annual 401(k) contributions for those without pension plans.

According to Finn, workers at some non-union plants, including electric vehicle sales leader Tesla, have approached the UAW about joining the union, which has not yet begun its organizing efforts. Fine noted that non-union companies raised their workers’ wages only after the UAW won general and cost-of-living increases, which should reach 33% by the time communications end in 2028.

“Companies play their employees for fools sometimes,” he said in the interview. “They care about keeping more for themselves and leaving employees to fend for themselves.”

Fine, who took office just eight months ago in the first direct election of UAW leaders in its history, said the time is right for labor unions to grow as they did in the 1930s and 1940s, before they began a steady decline starting in the 1950s. . He said American workers are tired of stagnant wages while corporate executives receive increasing multiples of average workers’ wages.

Fine said companies will spend “unlimited sums” to try to stop the UAW, but the union can point to its contracts in Detroit to show workers they will have a voice. In this way, he said, the union is a “great equalizer.”

Fine declined to specify which non-union companies the UAW would target first. But at the top of the list is Tesla, whose largest shareholder is CEO Elon Musk, the richest man in the world and an outspoken opponent of the union.

“The richest man in the world is the richest man for a reason,” Fine said. “They get this kind of wealth by exploiting others.”

Musk, who also runs the rocket company SpaceX, is talking about shipping Tesla’s production to Mexico and other low-cost countries.

A message was left seeking comment from Tesla.

The union leader said he expects Toyota, Honda and others to fight the UAW’s organizing efforts by threatening to close plants or eliminate benefits. Musk has threatened to end stock awards that go to production workers if they vote to join the union. The UAW, if given the opportunity, would negotiate to retain and increase those stock awards, Fine said.

Fine says the union would also have to regulate the Detroit automakers’ electric vehicle battery factories, which are joint ventures with South Korean companies. GM and Stellantis, maker of Jeep and Ram, have agreed to bring their joint plants under the union’s national contract, making it easier for the UAW to sign on. Ford didn’t do that.

That could become a problem if Ford fights UAW efforts to organize at plants in Kentucky and Tennessee, he said.

“Unless they change their tune, it will be an all-out war,” Fine said.

Ford has agreed to include a wholly-owned battery plant in Michigan and a planned electric pickup plant in Tennessee in the UAW contract. But in the interview, Fine accused CEO Jim Farley of agreeing to work with the union at the shared plants — but later backtracked.

“At that point, things weren’t going well,” Finn said. “We had to make progress where we could, and we did.”

She left a message at Ford requesting a response to Finn’s accusation.

Fine declined to say what his fight would look like or whether it might mean a strike against Ford in 2025, when the joint factories are scheduled to open.

“It just means we’ll do what we have to do to get it,” he said. “These workers deserve their fair share of economic and social justice.”

Ford said it could not promise to consolidate battery factories because its joint venture partner would have to agree. Additionally, Ford said the plants had not been built, and it could not agree to unionize workers who had not yet been hired.

In contract talks, Fine said, he will have to get stronger pension increases for longtime workers who have preferred defined benefit plans. He also wants new employees to have flat pension checks instead of 401(k) plans. The union plans to seek changes to the law requiring “retirement security” for all workers, and will push for the benefits in 2028 contract talks.

In the interview, Fine said he did not expect that the higher costs that automakers would absorb from the new contracts would lead them to build new factories in Mexico or Canada. He said the union can strike if a U.S. factory closes and can take action if companies build new factories elsewhere.

He said the UAW will try to work with the companies. But I’ve noticed that partnering with automakers in the past to address costs has usually benefited them, leaving workers out. He pointed to concessions the UAW agreed to in 2008 to help automakers get through tough financial problems.

This time, union members negotiated on their own, he said, but they also got raises for non-union workers in the South who wouldn’t have gotten anything if it weren’t for labor unions.

“This is something we should be proud of,” he said.

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