DETROIT - The picket lines will continue at GM U.S. facilities this morning for the 13th day.
The rank and file now just two days away from qualifying for their $250 strike pay. It is looking quite possible they will get to that mile marker unless something dramatic changes inside the negotiating rooms in the Downtown Detroit Renaissance Center.
Clearly, talks have bogged down. The teams have continued to work main-table talks since last Wednesday. Yet all we hear from them is they talk late into the evening, knock off and get some sleep and then return to the table in the morning.
Many wonder ‘what's taking so long?' There are many reasons. But let's take this strike down to its bare bones to gain some insight into what's going on and why getting over the finish line is proving so elusive.
The national UAW-GM contract is, at its heart, an exercise in the company buying its labor for the next four years.
Understandably, GM wants to get it as inexpensively as it can. Yes, it wants to maintain profitability, yet it also wants to try and stay competitive with the transplant plants; most notably Toyota, Honda and Nissan.
They pay their non-union workforces about $10 an hour less. The company also wants to try and gain some control over healthcare costs, which are skyrocketing each year.
Another massive variable is the bet GM CEO Mary Barra is making by sending the company whole hog into electric vehicles. The capital requirements for this are eye popping.
For its part, the UAW wants to get GM to pony up much more than it budgeted because the union did take concessionary contracts during the bankruptcy and early turn around years.
Considering the company made its largest ever profits over the past four years, some $35 billion, the UAW figures there's no shortage of cash to pass along.
This all makes sense, it's a negotiation. But what many might not know is the reason they're having trouble meeting in the middle, is the prolonged talks are more about budget management than anything else.
Despite the union's desire and efforts to get the "pie" expanded by the company, that is rare.
So, what really is going on now could be equated to a sculptor with a lump of clay. The clay is the company's budgeted amount for labor until 2023 and reshape it into something pleasing enough to the eye of the rank and file.
So, if the union wants set percentage pay increases each year as opposed to the bonuses GM offers along with its profit sharing, you have to take money from something else…like healthcare.
Yet the union is adamant about keeping its Cadillac healthcare plan intact or even improved. Well OK. But the membership is only paying about 3% of the cost while most Americans pay 28% on average.
So, OK, we keep that amount there, then something else has to give. So, there are fewer dollars to give to temporary workers that the union wants to put on a path to full-time employment.
You now begin to understand the problem here. It is the same problem you and I have at the kitchen table every day trying to make ends meet.
Ultimately, it's the union's leadership's job to last one hour longer than the company. As the strike goes on, gets more expensive, puts stress on the company's bottom line, leadership holds out hope the company will come in and add more clay to their sculpture.
That is likely where we are now. Let's not forget, the UAW leadership has trouble. Its corruption scandal puts a cloud over the entire proceedings.
That same leadership took everyone out on strike on the promise they could break the bank if everyone would just stand up to the greedy company.
Both the leadership and GM now talk every day and into the night with the underlying concern the membership is waiting and watching and has the lofty expectations.
Inside the Renaissance Center, both sides know if the contract is not rich enough, membership will kick it back to the negotiating table. Thus, we have the union ready to keep everyone out on strike until the ratification takes place.
As the grizzled old veteran of these kinds of negotiations I think back to the 1998 Flint strike, the most divisive and expensive strike of this kind the UAW ever fought against GM. It was not a national contract, it was a local dispute at the Flint Metal Center and then the old Delphi parts division.
That strike lasted something like 58 days. I recall being in the auditorium at the University of Michigan Flint when the local Delphi UAW leadership read the details of the contract.
The rank and file were furious. "You took us out on strike for two months to get this (expletive)?" they said. It wasn't rich enough. The membership needed to get back to work, it held its nose and ratified what everyone in the room thought was a disastrous contract.
Weeks later the rank and file immediately moved to vote out all the leadership that negotiated the deal. That could easily happen this time around.
So, it's hurry up and wait. We will continue to look for encouraging signs and the cries of solidarity forever will continue outside GM plants.
This negotiation could end today, tonight, tomorrow or next Friday. It's anyone's guess. Now a lot depends on how much stamina the negotiating teams have left. At least now, you know why this is taking so long.
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