DETROIT — Late nights, early mornings and a lot of hurry up to wait.
That’s the life of UAW and General Motors bargainers who are enduring a process that is emotionally and intellectually grueling, say two former labor negotiators and people close to the 2019 talks.
Since roughly 46,000 autoworkers went on strike early Sept. 16 at GM sites across the country, both sides have batted proposals back and forth, working long days and weekends.
It is one week since the UAW told members that all proposals had moved out of subcommittees to the “main table.”
The strike is expensive for GM, its suppliers and UAW strikers, who receive $250 a week strike wages.
This strike has cost GM just over $1 billion thus far, said JP Morgan analyst Ryan Brinkman on Tuesday. He said the strike cost GM about $480 million in the first week and another $575 million in the second. He estimated GM is losing $82 million per day, but East Lansing, Mich.-based consultant Anderson Economic Group estimated that GM was losing about $25 million a day.
The big losses only compound the pressure to reach a deal. Here is a behind-the-scenes peek at the bargaining process:
A huge table
The talks are taking place at downtown Detroit’s Renaissance Center, which houses GM headquarters, but the talks are not in company offices. The UAW has rented a suite of offices for its negotiators, lawyers, economists, secretaries and other staff. GM’s staff has a group of offices nearby.
The bargainers who live in metro Detroit drive home late at night and return early the next day; out-of-town bargainers are staying at area hotels.
One big room has a huge table that seats dozens. That is, literally, the main table. In many ways, not much has changed since previous negotiations. The term main table can also be figurative, referring to the leadership.
“We got one side of the hall, they got the other side of the hall,” said Art Schwartz, former general director of GM’s labor relations, recalling when he negotiated at UAW-GM Center for Human Resources on the Detroit riverfront before he retired in 2010. “There was also staff all over the building where the UAW had one floor and we had another.”
That staff included people “to write the language and someone proofreads it and nothing gets into the contract until both sides agree on that language, so you will see a mock tentative agreement with all kinds of initials on it,” Schwartz said.
The bargaining teams for both sides typically lay out their objectives and set the groundwork for negotiations at the main table early on, said Colin Lightbody, who was Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s director of labor economics until he retired in 2018. He is now president of HR & Labor Guru Inc., a consulting firm in Windsor, Mich.
“It will be all the lead bargainers plus every member of the subcommittee at the main table. There can be close to 100 people in the room,” said Lightbody, who spent 20 years negotiating union contracts. “It is a huge table.”
It’s now late in the process, so Terry Dittes, the union’s lead negotiator, and Scott Sandefur, GM’s top bargainer, are now using the main table to meet and hammer out the big issues.
“Typically, the lead bargainers would sit at the center of the table across from each other and their top lieutenants would sit in order, with your counterpart across from you,” said Lightbody.
People close to the talks have told the Free Press that this year’s conversations have been unemotional and focused. Lightbody said he knows Sandefur well and Sandefur is a “calm” personality.
“But I’ve seen different situations where you get your professional poker players who don’t show any emotions and then you get your screamers and fist-pounders,” said Lightbody. “Both sides are passionate about their causes. You don’t take anything said personally. In 95% of the cases, there is mutual respect for each other and both sides appreciate that they are doing their jobs.”
These talks appear to be a bit different from the past, though. Lightbody said at this point in negotiations, the main table typically has five to 10 people on each side.
But two people close to the talks said Dittes has all the elected bargainers from the UAW’s GM locals also in the room. That’s at least two dozen or more people just on the union side.
According to sources familiar with the talks, the union wants all of its participating negotiators and staff in one room at the main table. GM on the other side wants issues resolved in smaller groups or committees, which is affecting progress.
Union members complained during the 2015 negotiations, which the UAW negotiated with FCA before it bargained with GM and Ford, that it was a backroom deal of sorts.
Prosecutors in an ongoing UAW corruption scandal have questioned the integrity of those talks, suggesting that FCA officials were secretly siphoning money from the company and giving it to senior union officials as an investment in “relationship building.” The union has denied that, but the ongoing probe has reached the highest levels of the union now, with President Gary Jones’ home searched last month and Jones and his successor implicated in documents charging a regional director with misusing union money.
Lightbody said that Dittes’ desire for transparency is good, but others say it could be slowing down progress.
“If you’re down to the nitty-gritty, which I hope they are, you usually have a few people in the room,” said Schwartz. “You don’t usually get a lot done when you have a lot of people.”
Schwartz retired in January 2010, but he spent 24 years working on labor issues for GM and has bargained on seven national contracts. He said usually the meetings were two-on-two or a small group.
“That’s where you get a lot done on the big issues,” said Schwartz. “Some of the best agreements are done when you walk down the hall with your counterpart.”
But, said the person familiar with this year’s talks, “Just because there’s a lot of people in the room observing doesn’t mean there isn’t an order to things.”
Lightbody added that it is important to bring several bargainers to each meeting who can listen intently and take notes because the lead bargainer’s role is to present their views and generate discussion. The other bargainers can also watch body language and reaction to what’s being said, Lightbody said.
‘In the locker room’
The collective bargaining process starts 12 to 18 months before the two parties square off across a big table.
“The union negotiations process can be a very daunting task even for the most seasoned labor relations leaders. So it’s never too early to start the Bargaining Preparation process,” said Lightbody in the webinar Bargaining Preparation.
Both sides usually review previous negotiations, study old notes and analyze the personalities of the other sides’ bargainers.
“In negotiations, past behavior is often a good predictor of future behavior. Are there any patterns? For example, does the union initially ask for general wage increases in every year of the contract, but then later settle for a general wage increase in year one and then lump sum payments in subsequent years of the contract?” Lightbody said.
On the company side, negotiators will talk to factory managers to get a feel for the union members’ desires.
“The supervisors have their fingers on the workers’ pulses,” said Lightbody. “So the union is demanding significant wage increases, while employees are telling supervisors they just want to keep their job.”
At about six months prior to the start of bargaining, both sides start to do competitive benchmarking to gather data to use during negotiations. In this case, an example of that would be GM’s argument that it needs to reduce its labor costs because nonunion foreign automakers that build cars in the United States have an average total labor cost of $50 an hour compared with GM’s $63.
The UAW will gather its own data. It would argue that GM’s current labor costs make up about 5% of an average vehicle’s price, according to the Center for Automotive Research. A person familiar with the UAW contract said the requests in gains that it is asking for would amount to about $150 more in the price of a large GM SUV.
There is the final short-term preparation each side does. It includes a rehearsal of bargaining.
“You get a great agreement that way,” Schwartz joked about bargaining against yourself. “We used to call it being in the locker room. It means you haven’t taken the field yet. You’re trying to figure out the union’s position, get cost and come up with a list of demands. Both sides know they have to move, so the first offer on both sides tends to be extreme and that is when bargaining begins.”
A typical day
Usually, both sides hold a morning “roundup” meeting each day during the negotiations, said Lightbody. That’s where the labor relations leaders and their subcommittee chairpeople do a status update on the proposals, said Lightbody.
Then, the lead bargainers for both the union and the company meet to discuss new or pending proposals. That conversation could last 15 minutes or two hours, said Lightbody and Schwartz. It depends on the complexity of the topic.
Either way, the sides then go their own way, back to their respective offices to caucus. That’s when economists, accountants, lawyers and others study the proposals for what could be hours or days before returning to the main table to meet.
“The union is not going to sit there in a meeting in front of the company and debate among themselves if this is a decent proposal or not,” said Schwartz.
When the two sides reconvene, he said the union negotiators might say, “There are some things that are interesting, but they’d like to pursue something else,” said Schwartz.
He said there are always trade-offs in bargaining.
“You can’t settle wages without knowing what the in-progression people will be making and you can’t settle the temp issue until you know what the wages will be for everybody,” said Schwartz. “Everything is a cost. You can’t piecemeal it. You have a piece of paper with eight things on it and you have to settle all of it.”
The best and worst
Both Schwartz and Lightbody have had to negotiate overnight, sometimes for days on end. In fact, Lightbody said his worst bargaining experience was in 2003 when FCA negotiated through the night, two nights in a row.
“People were like zombies. Not only was that unhealthy, it was dangerous for both sides because the risk of making an error raises greatly if you’re so sleep deprived,” said Lightbody. “To me, negotiating through the night only makes sense if you’re close to a deal and you believe you can close it out by morning.”
And how do seasoned negotiators know when they might be close?
“The magnitude of the changes going back and forth gets smaller and smaller,” said Lightbody. “When you get a tentative agreement, it’s a great feeling, it really is … for both sides. It’s relief.”