A darker future for "Tier 2" workers

Original Reporting | By Eric Kroh |

Financial instability

Waun said even the workers earning the higher wage at the GM plants feel financially unstable because they fear they will soon be forced to accept the lower wage. “A lot of us, and I hear this a lot, feel like we have a noose around our neck and we’re just waiting for the floor to drop out from underneath,” he said.

So far, no employees at the Orion plant have had to drop to the lower wage from the upper wage, according to Pat Sweeney, president of UAW Local 5960, which represents workers at the Orion plant.

Asked how he responded to complaints that the Tier 2 wage was insufficient, Sweeney said that those hired at the lower wage “weren’t forced to take the jobs.”

“A lot of us, and I hear this a lot, feel like we have a noose around our neck and we’re just waiting for the floor to drop out from underneath.” — Nick Waun, Tier 1 GM employee

Remapping Debate asked Mike Smith, a labor historian at Wayne State University in Detroit, about the similarity of Sweeney’s response to anti-labor justifications that employers historically used in opposition to a minimum wage and similar labor-protective measures. Smith said an attitude of “If they don’t like the job, they don’t have to take it” was especially prevalent in the manufacturing industry before the rise of organized labor when companies hired great numbers of workers with little or no skill. If someone passed over a job, there was someone else willing to take it. Several people interviewed by Remapping Debate said the employment situation in Michigan was so bad that most people would indeed jump at the opportunity to earn half the rate that UAW workers had historically gotten.

Smith said it was his opinion that the UAW’s concession to a two-tier wage system was a necessity, though he acknowledged it goes against 75 years of the union philosophy of equal pay for equal work.

Sweeney defended the union’s acceding to having 40 percent of the Orion workers at the second tier. It was necessary in order to have the subcompact cars produced at that plant rather than abroad, where labor costs are lower, he said.

The UAW struck the deal with GM in order to “create more jobs in the United States,” Sweeney said. “They brought this product in from Korea instead of building it there,” he said.

Autoworker Caravan, a group of UAW members advocating for an end to tiered wages (Waun is involved with the group), says on its website that the payment system divides the workforce and leaves newer workers resentful of older employees who are getting paid twice as much to do the same job. Group members also fear that allowing some workers to be paid less will lead to a wage war with competitors and drive rates down even further. Paying some workers “barely livable wages” is unacceptable when auto companies are making billions in profits, they say. GM made some $6 billion in income in 2010.

“The UAW should not be turning around now and trying to match the lower standards [of foreign auto makers], only to give Toyota more breathing room to lower their standards more,” Waun wrote in an email. “It’s a downward game that we just shouldn’t be playing.”

Remapping Debate asked Sweeney to respond to criticisms of the tiered wage system from Autoworker Caravan and other UAW members. What are the union’s long-term plans to deal with the downward pressure on wages? How can it justify paying workers significantly different wages for the same job? And shouldn’t union negotiators be pressing for higher wages now that automakers have returned to profitability?

Sweeney replied that he didn’t have time to respond to reporters’ questions and they would have to be referred to UAW International. An email sent to UAW International with the same inquiries was not returned.

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