GM Workers Expect to Approve New Contract

The United Auto Workers is expected to wrap up voting on its groundbreaking deal with General Motors by Wednesday.

In Baltimore late last week, union members were preparing to vote on the agreement. Among them was Rick Romano who, like a student cramming for a test, was in the parking lot studying a summary of the contract before the vote at UAW Local 239.

As he headed inside the local for a briefing, Romano said he didn't know which way he would go.

"I am right on the borderline," he said. "I know we need to get back to work and America needs to work, but I'm also looking on some of the major concessions that we're taking and it could lend me to give the no vote."

Romano works for Allison Transmission, until recently a GM subsidiary. But he's still a member of the union and comes under the contract. The tentative deal is designed to slash GM's costs so it can compete with Toyota, Honda and other foreign companies.

One way GM wants to cut costs is by hiring some future workers at half pay. Workers currently make an average of $28 an hour. Under the new contract, some could earn as little as $14 an hour.

Dan Lasek Jr., 44, was a maintenance welder at the van plant in Baltimore that closed in recent years. He said hiring new people at half price may help GM take on the competition, but he thinks it will cause trouble in the factory.

"The bad part of this two-tier wage is that … it's going to cause dissent between people. We're working side by side, I'm making a whole bunch more money than you are, you're not going to be happy about it. I think it could cause problems," Lasek said.

Guy White, 50, a machine repairman at Allison Transmission, is suspicious of another big concession: the union taking over responsibility for retiree health care.

GM will pay more than $35 billion into a trust fund and the union will manage it. If health care costs spiral, the problem will largely fall to the union to solve.

"GM wanted to unload health care," White said. "It's like a smelly sneaker you know? If they don't want it, why would I want it?"

But when White put his pencil on his ballot, he voted for the contract. The reason is simple: employment.

Although the contract will eliminate some jobs, it also guarantees work at several plants that Allison supplies. And in the uncertain world of American manufacturing, that may be as good as it gets.

"The bottom line is that we've got a job," White said. "It looks like we'll have a job for the next four to 10 years, anyway. I'm sure we're going to be paying more for our health care. But at the end of the day, we have a good job and what more can you ask for?"

After the vote, Rick Romano returned to the parking lot and his truck. He wouldn't say how he voted but he predicted that his local union will pass the agreement.

"Everybody wants to work," Romano said. "I mean, nobody wants to see a strike. I think it will fly, I really do."

Romano knows his local well. The membership passed the contract overwhelmingly.

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