Members of the United Automobile Workers union have thrown their support behind new contracts with the Big Three American automakers, deals that deliver steep wage increases and other gains that had eluded the union for more than 20 years.
In the closest vote, the tentative contract agreement at General Motors won the support of 55 percent of the nearly 36,000 members who voted, according to a tally of all GM locals that the union released Thursday.
Tentative deals with Ford Motor and Stellantis, the maker of brands such as Jeep and Chrysler, appeared on track to be approved by more decisive margins, near-complete results showed.
A union spokesman confirmed the accuracy of the counts but declined to comment further.
The agreements are similar among the three automakers and increase the maximum wage for production workers by 25 percent, to more than $40 in four and a half years, from $32. They were reached last month after a six-week wave of strikes that paralyzed companies, a strategy spearheaded by the union’s new president, Shawn Fain, who had promised to take a more confrontational approach to negotiations than his predecessors.
The agreements appear to have quickly reverberated throughout the auto industry, with Toyota, Hyundai and Honda announcing significant pay increases at non-union plants in the United States just days later.
“We call that the UAW surge, and it means ‘You’re Welcome,’” Fain said in testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this week. “And we are very proud of it. And when these workers decide to organize and join the UAW, they will reap all the benefits of union membership and get everything they are entitled to.”
Fain said the union was trying to capitalize on its momentum by carrying out strong organizing campaigns at non-union plants and, in comments submitted to the committee, added that thousands of workers were already contacting the union and signing union cards.
But even Fain’s tough approach in talks with the Big Three did not produce terms attractive enough to many union members. GM workers at several large plants voted against the tentative deal by wide margins.
In contrast, members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters recently approved a new contract with United Parcel Service with 86 percent support, while a new contract between the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood studios was approved with 99 percent. percent support.
Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, said Fain had achieved a big victory despite having taken office only months earlier with the goal of reorienting the union.
He said the union’s approach of striking initially at a few plants and increasing them over time had “really upended a lot of the conventional wisdom” in the union movement and had proven unusually successful in reversing some concessions the union had accepted years ago. before, such as suspending a cost-of-living adjustment.
“Employers have really assumed that once they get rid of something, they don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Dr. Givan said. “This shows that if workers build enough power, they can take things back.”
In some respects, the relatively narrow window of ratification could strengthen the union’s position in future negotiations. Dr Givan said he demonstrated that workers’ expectations were high and would add credibility to the union’s claims that it cannot settle for a weak contract.
“This shows employers that when the bargaining committee comes to the table and says, ‘My members will never accept this offer,’ they mean business,” he said.
UAW members at Mack Truck also ratified a contract Wednesday, after rejecting an initial agreement with the company.
At all three automakers, skepticism toward the deals largely arose from veteran workers who felt the proposed contracts did not go far enough to compensate them for years of concessions and weak wage growth, even as the contracts brought strong gains for newer workers.
Huey Harris, a GM employee at a large truck assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, who has worked at the company for more than 20 years, said the deal should have gone further in rewarding veteran workers, although finally voted in favor. “Traditional people didn’t think they were offered enough in the contract,” he said.
Several former employees of the Big Three automakers said that even after the big profits from the new contract, they would not earn more than when they began their careers.
Curtis March, who works at Ford’s Chicago assembly plant, said he earned about $18 an hour once he reached the top wage for the company’s production workers in the early 1990s, equivalent to more of 40 current dollars if adjusted for inflation. He will earn about $36 in the first year of the new contract.
March said Ford was likely to approve the deal because it appeased newer employees who outnumber veterans like him.
The road to contract ratification has included some internal tensions for Fain and the union. Unite All Workers for Democracy, a reform group that played a key role in electing Fain and six other UAW executive board members to their positions, declined to formally recommend that union members approve the contract even after it Fain urged the group. do so at a recent meeting, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Instead, Unite All Workers passed a resolution pledging to remain neutral during the ratification vote, although stating that the group “celebrates the record achievements made in this agreement.”
Two of these people also said that the union’s General Motors department had been less communicative and less proactive in distributing information about the contract to local union officials and members than the Ford and Stellantis departments.
The union declined to comment on these developments.
Some autoworkers argued that the union had also made a mistake by not extending the strike further. The union began the strike at three plants, one owned by each of the automakers, and eventually expanded it to include about a third of the companies’ hourly workers in the United States.
LaDonna Newman, another longtime Ford worker who opposed the contract because of its limited benefits for veteran workers, said she believed the union could have won more at the bargaining table if it had been willing to escalate further.
Still, he did not blame Mr. Fain for the outcome. “He walked into a burning building,” Newman said. “I congratulate you very much for having the courage to go against the corporations.”
Sofia Lada contributed with reports.