UAW Contract’s Hidden Surprises for Skilled Trades

As United Auto Workers talks with the Detroit 3 go down to the wire—contracts expire at midnight tonight—workers are wondering what hidden surprises may await them in a tentative agreement. The AutoworkerCaravan group is demanding full disclosure of all contract terms.

At Chrysler, skilled trades workers are finding big problems concealed in the last concessions contract, as management thins their numbers to the bare minimum and gets barely trained production workers to take on their dangerous work.

Skilled trades work is known as the best work in an auto plant: the skilled pipefitters, electricians, welder-repair, and other journeypersons who not only are paid more but have had a certain autonomy.

The companies are reducing the skilled trades’ numbers by combining crafts, de-skilling the work, giving their work to production workers, and contracting out the rest.

Shotgun Wedding

After its 2009 bankruptcy, Chrysler was forced into a shotgun wedding with Fiat. Part of the “arranged marriage” included a take-it-or-we-go-out-of-business contract negotiated with the UAW. The International union would get to blame requirements of the U.S. Loan Security Agreement to explain away its lack of zeal in protecting workers’ rights on the shop floor.

The true size and magnitude of union concessions became known to workers only after the ratification of a contract short on details and long on promises. Two-tier wages and benefits for new hires, the loss of cost-of-living adjustments to base pay, paying overtime only after 40 hours per week instead of eight hours per day, instituting a draconian attendance policy designed to fire employees, consolidation of skilled workers into fewer trades, and the shredding of work-rule protections were all part of the bankruptcy deal.

When it took over, Fiat exported its World Class Manufacturing to North America. “World Class” is the remixed Italian variant of a Japanese manufacturing system promoted by an American professor named Edward Deming after World War II—aka lean production.

Fiat’s system is composed of ten “pillars,” such as cost, safety, quality, and “autonomous maintenance.” To illustrate the pillars, carpenters at the Warren Stamping Plant near Detroit were kept busy building wooden “Roman temple” facades to exhibit throughout the plant. Think of the Parthenon on display boards.

Part of this innovative approach to plant maintenance is based on the groundbreaking principle that if you clean and maintain production equipment, it runs better!

The stated goal of autonomous maintenance is to “improve the availability of working equipment and product quality through the involvement of production operators, assigning these greater responsibility for managing and maintaining machinery and equipment.”

This means that production workers are given the more routine work traditionally done by the trades. It has been the trades’ responsibility to keep the plant running—the electrical systems, the robots, the stamping presses—by carrying out inspections, lubrication, identification of faults, replacement of components, and repairs.

Evil Genius

No one is against clean, well-running equipment. It’s like Mom, Apple Pie, and Alfa Romeo. The evil genius of autonomous maintenance is that it will force stressed-out lower-wage workers to do skilled trades work on the cheap.

Before, if the production workers’ machines were idle or broken down, they would get a much-needed break or would be moved to another machine. Under autonomous maintenance, production workers jump on idled production lines and get down and dirty: cleaning, inspecting, lubricating, and tagging.

The company is the big winner. Skilled trades workers are paid $33 an hour. Production workers are paid roughly $28, and second-tier production workers come in between $14 and $16 with minimal benefits. To become a fully qualified skilled trades worker, you have to complete a four-year apprenticeship or work eight years in a specific trade as a trainee.



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To “qualify” as an autonomous maintenance worker, all you need is minimal training. You get one-page instructions on how to look for bad proximity switches or worn electrical cords, and rudimentary training in how to lock out a machine so it doesn’t run while someone is working on it.

Guess who the company would rather see on the job?

In an effort to prove the superiority of “World Class Manufacturing,” Warren Stamping management gamed the system. It neglected production lines for months and then spent extraordinary time and effort on the lines it designated “autonomous maintenance.” Both skilled and production workers were sent in to clean, replace, and renew.

Guess what—the cleaned and maintained autonomous lines ran better than the dirty old neglected ones. I am sure the awarding of gold stars and bonuses to managers depended on this outcome.

Sneak It In

You would think this potentially game-changing maintenance system would be announced with great fanfare. Instead, information leaked out only slowly and on the down low. The goal seemed to be to keep the true scope of it from the skilled trades.

I asked my union representatives what they knew. First they pleaded ignorance, and then they said they would check into it, or limit it, and finally they said their collective hands were tied by the terms of the Loan Security Agreement, or a decision of the International.

Up and down the representative ladder I went, from shop floor to UAW international headquarters. I still do not have a definite answer about the scope or limits of the program: no contract language, no written summary of any verbal understandings.

Production Workers Lose, Too

In the old days production workers would study for apprenticeship tests. They would enroll in community colleges for skilled trades-related training, and they would try to get as much experience as possible. This was how they could win a coveted apprenticeship to one of the many skilled trades classifications found in auto plants.

Though the work can be dangerous and hard, it was one of the best ways to leave behind some of the tedium of the shop floor. Skilled trades work got you a healthy raise in pay and the increased income of overtime.

Apprenticeships functioned to pass on the specific knowledge of the trades to the next generation of workers. But there have been no new apprentices in my plant or in the truck plant next door since 2000. It’s clear Chrysler’s plan is to shrink the skilled trades workforce.

Chrysler’s autonomous maintenance is breaking work rules, busting solidarity, and eliminating jobs. Production workers and skilled trades workers should stand together in the fight against doing each other’s work. Preserving the trades would ensure that today’s production workers have the same chance to become a skilled worker that I did.

As the 2011 contract negotiations between the UAW and Chrysler draw to a close, my co-workers and I still don’t know all the fine print in the 2009 agreement. We need complete contract details before we ratify a new one.

Alex Wassell is a member of AutoworkerCaravan, whose contract demands include elimination of the two-tier pay scheme, making temporary workers permanent, reinstatement of the cost-of-living allowance, plant closing prohibitions, and full disclosure of and right to ratify contract changes.


shierflyer (not verified) | 09/15/11

Not only are they not hiring or training aprentices, they (chrysler) is bastardizing the trades by forcing out of work tradesmen to work as other trades (J1). Not only does this show what little respect management has for what we do as tradesmen, it shows their never ending river of short sightedness! Example: toolmakers forced to become Diemaker at our plant don't want to start over and learn a new trade and the diemakers don't want to teach someone who will eventually have more seniority when their J1 term has been served...5, 10, maybe 15 years down the road we will have no tradesmen and the domestic automakers will have caused the problem then as usual will blame us for the result. Keep up the good work Alex and keep getting the word out!