UAW listens to skilled-trades gripes; GM pact on hold

Greg Gardner
Detroit Free Press
Stephen Carpenter works on an outside temperature gauge for a new SUV at the General Motors plant in Arlington, Texas.

The UAW is trying to untangle a knot holding up formal ratification of a new labor contract with General Motors as skilled-trades workers vented in meetings Monday over a variety of issues they say the contract doesn't solve.

Production workers, who account for a large majority of the UAW's 52,700 members at GM, approved the pact by a 58%-42% margin. But nearly 60% of skilled trades — the electricians, millwrights, pipefitters and diemakers — voted no.

Under the UAW constitution, the union must meet with skilled-trades people and listen to their complaints. If their main gripe is economic — for example, that they weren't offered a $60,000 retirement incentive offered only to production people — the union isn't authorized to reopen negotiations.

But a number of skilled trades people contacted by the Free Press expressed a list of problems.

  • The company's ongoing push to cross-train skilled trades so an electrician can do a millwright's job or repair a boiler without confirming they have the necessary certification.
  • GM's promise to train up to 400 new skilled apprentices. Skilled trades workers say a similar promise made in 2011 was not fulfilled.
  • There are many skilled-trades people now working on production lines when their skills are needed.

"You don't have to be an MBA to understand where they're going with this. They are trying to turn all the specialty mechanical tradesmen into general handymen," said Brian Cooper, an electrician at GM's Flint Metal Center.

A GM spokeswoman declined to comment pending the union's resolution of the skilled-trades objections. But in the contract's details are several letters and paragraphs expressing the company's desire to reduce the number of trades classifications.

GM also has increasingly relied on outside contractors to perform certain types of skilled work. The contract allows UAW tradesmen the opportunity to bid against contractors.

Cooper said in practice many plants need the contractors for what he called "non-strategic" work.

"What ends up happening is the contractor gets the job partially done, but hits an obstacle because of confusion in engineering management's drawings," Cooper said. "That leads to changes and the contractor using more people and taking longer, all of which he bills for. In the end, it costs more than if we had done it in-house."

The other problem is that GM's skilled workforce is aging. Many have said they would have taken the opportunity to retire had they been offered the $60,000 bonus.

The bonus is "a good investment for GM to replace a guy who doesn’t want to be there and get some fresh blood into these jobs," said Brandy Booth, a 42-year-old millwright and welder who currently is a production worker at the Bay City power train plant. He voted yes partly because he wants to move back to practice his trade at any plant within a reasonable commuting distance from his home in Standish.

With many plants running nearly around the clock for six days a week, GM's ambitious new vehicle plans and natural attrition of an older corps of skilled specialists, the need to train new tradespeople is greater than ever.

By the end of this week UAW President Dennis Williams and Cindy Estrada, head of the union's GM department, will consider the complaints from meetings that began Sunday. Then they must tell management whether they want to go back to the bargaining table.

The odds of that happening appear long.

Cooper said, "The obvious outcome here will be to cut the numbers of the mechanical trades. That is what the real issue is."

Contact Greg Gardner: 313-222-8762 or Follow him on Twitter @GregGardner12