As GM workers get back to work, Ford bargaining expected to be less adversarial

Oct 28, 2019

There were some cars in the Tonawanda Powertrain parking lot Sunday, but no picket lines outside along the plant periphery, as General Motors begins to crank up car and parts production after a nearly six-week strike across the country.

Contract talks are expected to be less adversarial for Ford workers in Hamburg.
Credit Ford Motor Plant

It was the longest auto strike in a half-century. Now, the two sides have to get back to work, making a profit and putting the new national contract into place.

GM got to keep some plants closed and United Auto Workers members bargained raises, an end to the lower wages for newer workers and the large number of temporary workers in the plants.

Cornell Industrial and Labor Relations School auto expert Art Wheaton said those temps had a lot to do with plants like Powertrain voting down the pact.

"The number of temporaries that they have had an impact on who voted for it and against it," Wheaton said. "So I think that the plants that have some fear of being closed down in the future tended to vote it down. The larger plants that were less concerned with the job security seemed to approve it."

Wheaton said workers are concerned that as the industry moves toward electric cars, workers in plants making essential parts for internal combustion engines - like Powertrain - worry there won't be a need for their plants. The contract does provide for a closed plant in Detroit to start installation of some equipment to make parts for electric cars.

"The commitment by General Motors to the U.S. workers has changed," he said, "because if you look at the numbers of jobs in Mexico, there's an awful lot of jobs in Mexico or China for General Motors and nowhere near the same numbers for Ford Motor Company selling the same or similar products in the same areas, but just two different commitment levels to the workforce."

Wheaton said UAW and Ford talks may go more smoothly because the two sides have better labor relations.

"They do have an appreciation for the workers and they have claimed in the press for William Clay Ford Jr. that the UAW saved Ford, that the UAW is an asset for Ford in the UAW's family," Wheaton said. "So they are not starting from an adversarial one. They're still going to be tough to try to get the finances and the economics to work out, but they don't have each other at the table."

For many decades, the UAW has used what's called pattern bargaining. That's reaching a deal with one of the Big Three and then pushing for similar agreements with the other two. There are about 1,100 workers at the Ford Stamping Plant in Hamburg.