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Why GM Workers Narrowly Passed A Record-Setting Contract
Despite some lingering disappointment, workers at all Big Three Detroit automakers just voted to ratify historic gains.
By Katie Nixdorf, More Perfect Union
UAW members at General Motors joined union siblings at Ford and Stellantis in ratifying a historic contract this week, winning a 25 percent wage increase over the four-and-a-half-year agreement. The deal also reinstates cost-of-living adjustments and folds Ultium Cells, GM’s joint venture electric vehicle battery operation, into the agreement.
But despite having a similar contract to Ford and Stellantis, where two-thirds of workers voted for their deals, the GM contract passed with just 55 percent support. At one point, the entire deal looked to be in jeopardy when majorities at several large plants voted against ratification; ultimately, overwhelming support from some smaller plants helped cinch the agreement. (Ultium Cells workers also backed the deal with 96 percent approval.)
Workers on both sides told More Perfect Union why they voted the way they did.
“My current pay is $21.07. [The new contract] immediately jumps me up to the new highest, which is $35.88 an hour, so that's massive,” said Arik Avery, a worker who has been at GMCH Grand Rapids for six years. “I voted yes. Pretty much every coworker I talked to was also excited to vote yes on it too.”
Workers at GM Customer Care and Aftersales (GMCCA) and Components Holdings (GMCH) facilities won immediate raises of up to 89 percent, according to the UAW. These centers all voted to approve the contract.
But, as the close margins showed, not everyone was as enthusiastic.
“Do I think it's a historic contract? I do,” said Jessie Kelly, a GM worker at GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, which makes pre-prototypes and show cars. “But I think it came after decades of historic exploitation and historic inflation in this country and a historic pandemic that has made people wake up and realize that they don't want their life to amount to nothing other than being a worker.”
Jeremy Faulkner, who works at Warren Tech and has been at GM for almost 24 years, told More Perfect Union that people of his seniority “basically remember the way it was. And we want it back that way.”
For many workers, like Faulkner, pensions and retirement health care were a sticking point. “The contracts have never been about us since the bankruptcy,” he said. “We haven't had a pension adjustment since 2007.”
The UAW finally did win an increase for current workers with pensions of $1,800 per year. It also secured a 10 percent employer contribution for workers with 401(k)s. The contract did not, however, extend pensions or retirement healthcare to workers hired after 2009, something many members had hoped for. “I don't get health care when I retire and that was something that was important to me,” said Tommy Wolikow, a worker at Flint Assembly.
“I work in a shop where everybody else gets a pension and health insurance after retirement, except for me,” said Kelly. “We're exposing ourselves to the same chemicals and the same diseases and the same toxic things every single day. And I know that they're going to be covered for the rest of their life and I know I'm not.”
Beyond the details of the contract, there is a deep-seated distrust that might explain why GM workers were more skeptical than their counterparts at Ford and Stellantis.
Wolikow used to work at Lordstown Assembly, which GM closed in 2019. He ultimately transferred four hours away to the Flint plant to keep his job. “The whole transfer thing was the hardest thing I ever went through in my life,” Wolikow said. “I have a daughter in Ohio that I ended up having to leave there. It's the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
The UAW did win a historic right to strike over plant closures in the contract, but distrust of GM still runs deep among many workers.
“There's no trust left with these companies for us because we've seen them take advantage of every situation that they can take advantage of,” said Kelly. “It seems like they will do anything just to make a penny.”
Workers also remember what happened during the bankruptcy and subsequent auto bailout. “Those of us who hired in before 2007 remember when they pulled the last wage increase from us and took it back at the end of the contract because they cried broke,” said Jeremy Faulkner.
In this contract, UAW members at GM will get wage increases of 11 percent immediately, 3 percent in the following three years, and then 5 percent in the final year of the contract. Faulkner is concerned about the second-largest wage increase coming at the end of the contract. “It just feels like we’ve been bit way too much,” he said.
GM workers also recall how the company stripped workers of health care during the 2019 strikes. “When you're working for them, you remember that. You remember that they're capable of doing things like that in just an act of retaliation to keep you under their control,” said Kelly.
Despite some workers’ concerns, votes from the CMCCA and CMCH centers tipped the scales towards ratification.
The UAW has made clear that it’s not finished fighting to expand members’ gains. The union has set the next contract expiration deadline for April 30th, just before May Day, and encouraged other unions to do the same so workers can collectively demonstrate their power.
UAW President Shawn Fain has vowed to “organize like we've never organized before” over the life of this contract—in hopes that by 2028, the UAW will be negotiating with more than just Ford, GM, and Stellantis.