Devil in Local Contract Details for UAW, Detroit Three

The UAW warned it would strike Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant unless it was able to negotiate a new local contract at the big complex, which already had played a decisive role in last autumn’s stand-up strike. A tentative local agreement was reached Feb. 21.

Joseph Szczesny

March 14, 2024

4 Min Read
Toledo Jeep assembly
Workers install airbags in ’24 Jeep Gladiator at Stellantis’s Toledo (OH) Assembly Complex. Contract addressing local issues still being negotiated.

By all accounts, the UAW’s “stand-up strike” was a great success, producing record contracts and stirring interest in unionization in nonunion auto plants around the country.

However, the union and Detroit’s automakers are struggling with local union contracts, which deal with issues beyond wages and benefits such as lines of demarcation between skilled trades, the implementation of local seniority and grievances.

“Local contracts tend to focus on local work rules. Not as high-profile as wages and benefits, but they do make a difference in how work gets done,” says Art Wheaton, Director of Labor Studies at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Several local contracts, which also address everyday concerns around nitty-gritty issues such as vending machines, lighting, bathrooms and parking-lot security remain unresolved at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, according to company and UAW officials.

Unresolved local contracts involve working conditions at critical plants such as Stellantis’s truck plants in Sterling Heights and Warren, MI, as well as the Jeep complex in Toledo, OH; the GM truck plant in Flint, MI, and a key GM stamping plant in Marion, IN; and the Ford assembly plant in Chicago, according to a WardsAuto survey of UAW locals.

Members of UAW Local 1700 at the Stellantis truck plant in Sterling Heights have already voted down a tentative local agreement by a 3-to-2 margin, according to the local’s Facebook page.

Over the weekend, UAW members at Ford’s giant Kentucky Truck Plant agreed to accept a new local contract for production workers, 56%-44%, but rejected the skilled-trades portions of the proposed agreement by a 60%-40% margin.

Ford KTP pickets 10-12-23 (Getty).jpg

In February, the UAW warned it would strike Kentucky Truck unless it was able to negotiate a new local contract at the big Ford plant, which already had played a decisive role in last autumn’s stand-up strike. A tentative local agreement was reached Feb. 21, two days before about 9,000 workers were to strike.

The core issues in local negotiations at Kentucky Truck are health and safety in the plant, including minimum in-plant nurse staffing levels and ergonomic issues, as well as Ford’s continued attempts to weaken the skilled trades, the union says.

The local agreements can be costly for budget-conscious plant managers, who must find the money for new equipment, new lighting or even new employees required by the UAW.

Wheaton says local contract disputes do not interrupt production. But in the 1990s, then-UAW President Steve Yokich approved more than three dozen “five-day letters” warning of local strikes at various GM plants to use health and safety issues as a lever to slow the automaker’s transfer of work to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The UAW effort, which culminated in a 54-day strike at the Flint (MI) Metal Center that shut down GM production, slowed but never halted GM’s plans to move more work to Mexico and China.

In recent years, local negotiations seem to have become less of a priority, and the shift has not necessarily benefited the union or its members, according to Scott Houldieson, one of the leaders of Unite All Workers for Democracy, a grassroots organization of UAW members, and a member of UAW Local 551 in Chicago, which has yet to work out a new local contract with Ford.

UAW President Shawn Fain says he wants to pay more attention to local agreements, but Houldieson, whose caucus supported Fain for the union presidency last year, notes “He can’t do everything at once.”

Since the 1980s, Unifor, the union that represents Canadian auto workers, insists all local contracts must be resolved along with the national agreements. In both 2019 and 2023, local negotiations delayed the final agreements for Canadian workers.

Houldieson suggests UAW members be allowed to sit in and observe local negotiations, rather than bargainers conducting them in what amounts to secrecy.

Meanwhile, Fain is pressing ahead with the UAW effort to organize nonunion plants.

More than 30% of the workers at a Toyota plant in Troy, MO, have signed union authorization cards. The plant, which is about 60 miles (100 km) northwest of St. Louis, employs about 900 people and supplies cylinder heads to the automaker’s North American engine plants.

If 70% of workers sign authorization cards, they will seek voluntary recognition of the union, and if Toyota doesn’t agree, they will petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election.

The UAW also is focusing on the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN, and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, AL. More than half the workers at both the VW and Mercedes plants have signed union authorization cards, and the UAW is counting on support from IG Metall, the influential union in Germany, to pressure the German automakers.

More than 30% of workers at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, AL, also have signed union authorization cards.

The UAW has released a video detailing some of the issues at the Troy plant.

“The plant is not safe,” says Jaye Hochuli, a team leader at Toyota. “How can the richest car company in the world not follow basic safety practices? We’re organizing to fix what’s wrong and win the protection we need.”

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