DETROIT — UAW member Kenneth Mefford has a vivid memory of the 2015 contract negotiations. He almost walked off the assembly line onto a picket line.
It was one minute before midnight on the expiration date of the union’s contract. Workers had heard nothing on whether a new tentative deal had been struck.
“Everything stopped. We all stopped working,” said Mefford, who works at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Warren Truck Assembly plant in Warren. “We were looking around at each other as to what do we do?”
So Mefford and his co-workers started walking off the job, he said. Then, in what he describes as “a scene in a movie,” a team leader came running in the plant. She yelled: ‘Don’t walk out! Don’t walk out! Don’t walk off the line! They got a tentative contract!’ “
“There was a minute to go,” Mefford said. “They had the signs printed and what the times were for us to report for a strike. They literally signed a deal a minute before we were ready to walk off.”
Mefford and other veteran UAW members suspect the rank-and-file will face acute anxiety again this year at 11:59 p.m. Saturday because if, by midnight, there’s no tentative deal or an extension of the current one, workers could walk.
“They’re going right up to the wire,” said Harley Shaiken, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor issues. “What truly focuses the mind on both sides of these talks is the possibility of a strike.”
The UAW workers who’ve gone through this process, including past strikes, say the experience is angst-riddled, yet powerful.
The UAW, which represents nearly 150,000 hourly workers at Ford Motor Co., General Motors and FCA, has chosen to negotiate a new contract first with GM. That deal will serve as a template for the UAW’s later talks with the other two. In 2015, the UAW led with FCA. The union negotiates a new contract with the automakers every four years.
If the UAW leadership believes it must strike, members at all three companies have voted to authorize one. That doesn’t mean the union will strike, but no one really knows until the 11th hour.
“At one minute before midnight, if there’s not something negotiated, the union will call for an extension or a work stoppage,” said Tommy Wolikow, who works at GM’s Flint Assembly plant. “I am definitely stressed out about it. The last thing anybody wants is a strike. But sometimes that’s what needs to happen, and the membership is ready to do that.”
To prepare to live on the $250 weekly strike pay, Wolikow, 37, has been working as much overtime as he can and reducing any discretionary spending. He just sold his house near Lordstown, Ohio, where GM indefinitely idled its plant. Wolikow had worked at Lordstown for nearly 12 years.
Besides Lordstown, GM plans to close three other U.S. plants: Detroit-Hamtramck and transmission plants in Warren and Baltimore. GM said those closures and cutting about 4,000 white-collar jobs will save it at least $2 billion this year. But the plant closures have embittered many UAW members.
“I want nothing more than to hear that Lordstown is getting a new product,” said Wolikow. “I’d love to go home. My 11-year-old daughter lives in that area and I want to be close to her.”
Gary Walkowicz, 70, is a local union representative on the bargaining committee at Ford Dearborn truck plant. He has worked for Ford for 45 years. In 1976, he participated in a 28-day walkout.
“A strike is certainly a hardship for the workers,” said Walkowicz. “It’s difficult to make ends meet and pay your bills. It’s not a thing people should take lightly.”
But the unified act of fighting for better benefits, wages or job security can also be inspiring, Walkowicz said.
“One thing that the workers feel is their collective strength and power when they do go on strike,” said Walkowicz. “By withholding our labor, we have some negotiating power over the companies.”
The talks will be tough because GM is bracing for an economic slowdown and, with uncertainties over tariffs and trade issues, GM is not expected to bend to the union’s will.
GM’s decision to close plants and the fact that UAW members at all three carmakers say they gave up pay and benefits over the past decade to help the companies when they were struggling means the rank-and-file expect payback and job security, he said.
The rank and file have been clear about what matters to them in a new contract: Protecting wages and benefits, seeking a better work-life balance, establishing a path for temporary employees to go permanent and mitigating job injuries, among other things.
Some union members worry the negotiations might be tainted in the wake of an FBI and Internal Revenue Service raid late last month at the home of UAW President Gary Jones. Nine people have been charged in a long-running investigation of the UAW. All but one were associated with misuse of money intended for training at the UAW-FCA joint training center.
Despite the demands and the cloud of the investigation into the UAW, Washington said he still has faith in union leaders to win the best deal possible and GM to compromise enough to avoid a strike.
“There are some who did wrong, but there are a lot who are about the business of helping members of the UAW,” said Washington. “I don’t think there’ll be a strike because GM has so many hot vehicles coming, they can’t afford for the UAW to walk.”