Auto Unions Ride High with Industry’s Rebound

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The three major union locals that represent workers in the Mahoning Valley’s automotive sector begin the year filled with confidence, their representatives say, as sales of new vehicle continue to climb and suppliers ride the wave of steady demand.

Leaders who represent locals 112 and 1714 of the United Auto Workers and Local 717 of IUE-CWA agree that the domestic auto industry has enjoyed one of its best years on record – a far cry from seven years ago when many wondered whether the industry and its workforce could survive.

Led by this year’s launch of the next-generation Chevrolet Cruze at General Motors Co.’s Lordstown Complex, the automotive sector here is thriving, and organized labor is sharing in the rewards.

“Right now, we’re in the midst of ramp-up,” says Glenn Johnson, president of Local 1112, which represents 2,800 workers at Lordstown’s East Plant, where much of the assembly operations are. “Our team members are learning their new jobs and continue to be real excited about our new product.”

The new Cruze comes with a new build, Johnson says. Among the work changes is how autoworkers assemble components in the plant’s trim shop. In the past, line workers walked along side of the vehicle as it moved down the assembly line. Now, employees step onto a “moving sidewalk” that carries them with the car as they perform their job. “It is the state-of-the art way to build cars,” Johnson says. “Team members are working the bugs out. Like any new job, it takes a little bit of getting used to.”

Johnson says the next-generation Cruzes should arrive in dealerships by early spring. “We had a great run with the first generation,” he says, “and we’re excited to get it out a soon as possible.”

UAW membership across the country has risen steadily since the Great Recession, according to the union’s LM-2 form, which is filed annually with the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2014, the UAW boasted 403,466 members, up from 391,415 the previous year. In 2009, in the midst of the economic meltdown, UAW membership fell to 355,191 nationwide but has been climbing since.

As the auto industry rebounded in full force, so too did profits for corporations such as GM, whose North America operations earned a full-year pre-tax profit of $11 billion in 2015. Under the labor agreement with the UAW, eligible union employees are to receive checks of up to $11,000 in profit sharing Feb. 26.

Local 1112’s ranks include workers at plants and in operations outside of GM Lordstown, Johnson notes, and even outside the automotive industry. Aside from the 2,800 hourly employees at Lordstown East, Local 1112 represents 300 workers at Intier Automotive, Lordstown, which manufacturers seats for the Cruze; 100 at Jamestown Industries, Austintown, which performs front and rear fascia assembly and sequencing for the vehicle; and hourly employees at a housekeeping operation who work inside the plant.

Outside the automotive industry, UAW Local 1112 represents 200 employees at the Kmart Distribution Center near Warren, 15 workers at Mahoning County Job and Family Services, and five members of an information technology group based in Boardman. Nationally, the UAW has been successful in organizing workers in the gambling industry, higher education and automotive suppliers.

“I’m interested in talking with anyone who would want representation,” Johnson says. “Having a voice at the table and trying to get fair and equitable agreements is important.”

Despite this trend, the UAW membership is well below the 654,657 members it reported in 2004, four years before the economy collapsed. Most of this decline was the result of attrition incentives offered to employees who had met eligibility requirements for retirement.

This year, some 200 are expected to retire from Local 1112, Johnson says. “As far as backfilling those jobs, there’s some national agreement language that has to be taken care of first, and then we have some temporary employees in there that would get switched over to permanent.”

Robert Morales, president of Local 1714, which represents 1,400 hourly workers at the Lordstown West plant, says organized labor still faces many challenges despite the overall benefits unions have achieved not just for their members, but for wage rates across the country.

“Right-to-work laws and their effect on bargaining trends is a big concern,” he says. “We support those who support us – the ballot box has a direct connection to the bread box. It’s a constant battle.”

Moreover, unions here make it their purpose to give back to the community, Morales emphasizes. “As part of the leadership, we’re always trying to get our membership involved,” he says. In early February, both Lordstown locals delivered 1,000 cases of purified water to Flint, Mich., to help alleviate those affected by the water crisis in that city. Another 300 cases are reserved to help with the water supply in Sebring in southwestern Mahoning Country.

“Whenever we have an opportunity, we like to give back,” he says.

Officials of other local unions tied to the automotive sector are also bullish on the industry and the prospects for improved wages and benefits for their members.

“It’s definitely a better day at Delphi for the worker,” observes Brian Lutz, shop chairman at IUE-CWA Local 717, which represents 700 hourly employees at Delphi’s Warren operations. “We’ve gotten significant gains for our workers, especially those who have been here nine years.”

Last November, union members ratified a five-year agreement that will increase the wages of those with nine years’ employment by 33% over the life of the contract, Lutz says. “Every year, there’ll be an annual raise. That’s something we haven’t had in a long time.”

Lutz says Delphi is transitioning to new work schedules to make its operations here more competitive. At Plant 47, for example, hourly workers now fulfill a three-day on, three-day off schedule, staggered so the plant can operate 24/7.

“We’ve also secured new work,” Lutz says. The local Delphi operation was successful in winning a new warehousing business at the plant that would store Bluetooth technology devices for automobiles. “All of it goes to OEMs [original equipment manufacturers],” he reports.

Although there have been no significant hires since the agreement was ratified – possibly five or six permanent jobs have been added – Delphi has made additional investments in the Warren complex, Lutz says. “We secured some investments in our compound-making facility,” he says. The compound plant – known as Plant 7 – was relocated to Warren several years ago from Rootstown.

“We also added an apprenticeship program,” Lutz says. These apprenticeships could cover skilled positions such as electricians, tool and die makers, and mechanics. “We haven’t been able to guarantee a trade yet since the program is still in its infancy.”

More important, the thriving automotive sector has placed operations such as Delphi – once headquartered in Warren but now based in England – in a strong position to remain competitive in North America. “I’m very optimistic about the auto industry for the next several years. We’ll do anything to expand our workforce and create opportunity for our workers,” Lutz says.

‘3 Minutes With’ Glenn Johnson, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112

Pictured: Glenn Johnson says UAW Local 1112 represents more than 500 workers employed by companies other than GM.

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