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GM And UAW Face Perfect Storm Ahead Of Contract Talks


Detroit automakers are bracing for a possible strike. The United Auto Workers Union is set to renegotiate their contract, and it could get contentious. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton has the view from outside a shuttered General Motors plant in Warren, Mich.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: I'm standing in front of a ghost factory where more than 1,200 UAW members used to clock in every workday to build transmissions for GM cars. Now the gates here are chained shut, the building is silent and the acres and acres of parking lots around it sit empty.

Earlier this summer, days before the plant shut its doors for the last time, a tearful Danielle Murry talked about what she gave up in wages and benefits to help GM get through bankruptcy in 2009.

DANIELLE MURRY: I was happy to do so to save my job, to save the company that I work for.

SAMILTON: She said closing this plant was like a slap in the face.

MURRY: Now that they're on top and still making record-breaking profits, they're not willing to do that for us to save us.

SAMILTON: Murry isn't being laid off, but she will likely have to upend her life and accept whatever transfer she's offered, even if it's as far away as Tennessee or Texas. Across the country, several thousand other GM workers are facing the same situation. The company has also shut down its plants in Lordstown, Ohio, and Baltimore. Detroit-Hamtramck is next on the list.

The closures have shaken the union rank and file to its core. And the UAW began sending signals of readiness for a strike months before talks began in earnest. Here's UAW president Gary Jones at the annual bargaining convention in March.


GARY JONES: The international executive board has decided to raise the strike pay from $200 per week to $250 per week effective immediately.

SAMILTON: There are many other, equally thorny issues - lower pay and benefits for workers hired after 2007, automation, the automaker's heavy reliance on temporary workers - nearly 9% of the total workforce at this point - and most of all stagnation in base pay. Detroit auto workers have only gotten two raises in the past 10 years, and those raises were only 3%. It all adds up to this.

MICHAEL HICKS: There is a very high probability of a strike.

SAMILTON: That's Michael Hicks, an economist at Ball State University who studies manufacturing trends. He says the union chose General Motors as its target because it's the healthiest of the Detroit Three. But he gives the union pretty poor odds of getting the company to agree to an hourly wage hike even if workers deserve it.

HICKS: I'm very sympathetic to that argument, but I don't see a real way out for the UAW as we're staring a global recession in the face.

SAMILTON: And GM is also facing significant cost headwinds in part because of the trade war with China. It also needs to spend billions on future technologies, like automated cars - investments that likely won't pay off for years to come.

HICKS: GM's got some uncertain times that it's going to be planning for. The UAW's timing couldn't possibly be worse.

SAMILTON: And let's not forget the wild card - that's the ongoing federal corruption investigation of the Union that's led to guilty pleas by five UAW officials so far and most recently a high-profile raid of homes owned by the union's current president, Gary Jones, and its former president, Dennis Williams. The corruption probe is almost certain to undermine union workers' trust in their leaders just when it's needed the most.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.


Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.