UAW’s FCA workers contemplate life after PSA merger

DETROIT — Aric Holloway feels like he’s seen it all.

The longtime worker at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Warren Truck Assembly Plant was around for Chrysler’s ill-fated “merger of equals” with Daimler. Then there was the brief ownership by Cerberus Capital Management and the bankruptcy that resulted in the Fiat tie-up.

Now he and other UAW-represented workers at FCA have another blockbuster development to think about as they await a labor contract to set their pay and benefits for the next four years: a merger agreement with PSA Group of France.

Despite the relative success of the Fiat merger, Holloway is skeptical. Memories of the Daimler experience are tough to shake.

“You’re getting the sweat off my back” as part of the deal, said Holloway, 62, whose son works for another FCA plant. “I only got four more years now, but my son is fresh. He gotta do his 30.”

A younger worker at a different plant says he understands the concerns of the older generation. He also wonders how the profit-sharing arrangement with UAW members, for instance, could be affected down the line.

“They changed names and changed hands so many times,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified. “You can’t blame the workers who went through all of the different mergers for being a little apprehensive.”

Art Wheaton, a labor expert at Cornell University, says the merger could have a “huge impact” on the 2023 negotiations. FCA won’t have enough time to finalize the merger before the 2019 contract comes together, so Wheaton isn’t expecting any language about the tie-up to make it into this agreement.

“This initial contract, it won’t have a huge impact other than making the membership nervous,” Wheaton told Automotive News. “But the next contract, when they’re actually doing more of the consolidating of plants or trying to finalize where they’re going to build what [and] how they’re going to build it, it’ll take them a couple years to get all those plans outlined.”

Negotiations with FCA were ongoing in the background while the UAW focused on getting deals with General Motors and then Ford Motor Co. Cindy Estrada, the union’s vice president in charge of its FCA department, said in a letter to workers Tuesday, Nov. 12, that the union was continuing to meet with FCA about the outstanding issues.

“We are making progress and if UAW-Ford ratifies, Acting UAW President Rory Gamble and the President’s office staff will join us next week and work to finalize the UAW FCA bargaining,” Estrada said in the letter. “While we intend to press forward to reach an agreement it is impossible to forecast how long this will take.”

Holloway and coworker Ken Mofford want the next contract to close the divide between veterans such as themselves and younger laborers coming in. The union has had to deal with the dynamic of senior workers toiling beside temps who don’t get the big profit-sharing checks and other bonuses they do.

“What happened to all for one and one for all and equal wage?” asked Mofford, 58, who served in the Army during the Gulf War and comes from a family of auto workers. He feels that workers have been kept in the dark about what they’ll be voting on.

“We just want to get this done with,” Mofford said. “We’re glad we won’t have to end up going on strike. I have to thank our GM brothers and sisters who did go out and actually picket. They’re the ones who took the hit. Ford and Chrysler will reap the benefits.”

During the 2015 contract talks, FCA expanded its ability to use temporary workers from just Mondays, Fridays, weekends and holidays to all week. FCA is again looking to expand the number of temps it uses to cover absenteeism. One FCA assembly plant has at times filled more than 20 percent of positions with temps because of absences.

FCA argues that the temps are critical to its operations because workers get worn down and need time off when plants are running full-tilt. The Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, for example, operated on 47 of 52 Sundays last year.

Holloway, who has been with Chrysler for nearly 30 years, is concerned about morale but admits he’s satisfied with how the Fiat combination has turned out. FCA is more stable and has a stronger foothold in the U.S., but he and his co-workers still have much to ponder.

The frequent merger talks over the years have kept them guessing. Just five months ago, it appeared FCA was about to join forces with Renault, before the French government complicated the situation. FCA walked away but left the door open for another merger down the line.

The federal investigation into corruption by some former UAW and FCA officials also has complicated the situation for rank-and-file workers. The union’s top negotiators on each of the previous two contracts with FCA were among those accused of taking bribes and kickbacks. President Gary Jones took a leave several days after the UAW reached a tentative agreement with Ford, leaving Gamble in charge of the union as it works to conclude talks with FCA.

Holloway, while working at FCA’s oldest U.S. plant, had been unaware of the corruption permeating through the union’s upper ranks over the years. He doesn’t think negotiations should be taking place while the corruption investigation is going on.

Mofford said those caught up in the scandal should’ve known they crossed the line. They didn’t need fancy champagne to do business, he said.

“You heard whispers of it, but when the contract was done, everybody was happy, you went back to work,” Mofford said. “And that was pretty much it.”