THE BLOG
09/28/2015 03:06 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Union Votes on Fiat Chrysler Deal

The fact that "pattern bargaining" (where the UAW chooses one of the Big Three automakers to negotiate with and uses the subsequent agreement as a template for negotiations with the other two companies) still exists in the industry is something of a surprise, given that people have been predicting its demise for years.

Granted, even though there is nothing legally or economically binding about this methodology, it's worked fairly well. When the UAW gets one of the Big Three to agree to something, the expectation is that the other two automakers will fall into line, the supposition being that the respective memberships will rebel if they don't receive a commensurate deal.

And despite the storied UAW being a shadow of its former self (with only 390,000 members today, down from a high of 1.5 million in 1979), it's still a formidable union, consisting of a savvy membership with the ability to be taken seriously when it chooses to rattle its sabers.

This year the UAW picked Fiat Chrysler (rather than Ford or GM) as their target. After months of preliminaries and across-the-table bargaining, it came away with a tentative 4-year contract that is currently being voted upon. Results are expected to be announced next week. Already there are reports of it being voted down by some of the larger locals.

As a former union negotiator, I can attest to a truism: Every contract ever negotiated can be interpreted either as "a decent settlement, given the circumstances" or as "a piece of dog-shit that never should have been brought back for ratification." I've seen both, done both, been both.

Another truism: No union can judge the contract of another union. First of all, it's none of their business, and second, the membership always knows best. Because the members -- and only the members -- will know when it's time to fight or time to accept a substandard agreement, they don't need to be prodded or second-guessed.

One reason Fiat Chrysler was chosen as the target was because two-tier wages (where new employees are paid substantially less than existing employees) was going to be a key agenda item. The two-tier configuration has been a huge blemish on the UAW. And of the Big Three automakers, Fiat Chrysler has the largest percentage (roughly 40-percent) of lower-tier employees.

Some of the tentative contract's provisions: In exchange for car manufacturing (a low profit segment) being shifted to Mexico, U.S. plants will shift to the manufacture of trucks and SUVs; the two-tier will be washed out a bit (not nearly enough, but some); profit-sharing will increase; and a ratification bonus will be offered (every employee receives $3,000 if the contract is ratified).

The ratification bonus is a prime example of how differing perceptions can affect a vote. I have personally seen people embrace the bonus as a windfall -- as unexpected cash going directly into their pockets -- and have seen people reject and ridicule it as a transparent and insulting "bribe." (Alas, I've seen people reject a "bribe," and simultaneously argue for a larger bribe.)

Again, outsiders (even labor writers like myself) have no business weighing in on the merits of a UAW contract. Those Trotskyite websites--the ones that have referred to every UAW leader since Walter Reuther as "corrupt" or as a "sellout," or as a "dupe" -- couldn't be more ignorant or self-righteously socialist.

A glance at the labor history of the U.S. reveals that the UAW has been the gold standard of unions ever since it was founded in 1935. No better union has ever existed. Indeed, there was a time when virtually every local in the country (mine was one of them) tried to emulate the UAW.

And even though the last three decades have been unbelievably cruel to the autoworkers, have seen them ravaged--lied to, cheated, manipulated, marginalized, and unfairly punished--the current UAW rank-and-file is neither stupid nor gutless. They can be trusted to do the right thing.