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Dale Schotts can vividly recall parts of the autumn day in 2004 when rigging failed and a well-liked machine repairman was killed at the General Motors Powertrain plant in Warren, Mich. Other parts of that horrible day are just a blur.
Dealing with on-the-job fatalities is heart-wrenching work for UAW members. After experiencing what happens when a friend and co-worker dies, it’s easy to understand why the UAW is so serious about health and safety.
In those difficult times, members seek to comfort one another on their loss, get professional help if necessary and improve on their local’s response to the tragedy.
In three of the fatalities, the worker was alone for the most part, a problem for skilled-trades workers who go into remote areas of worksites for maintenance jobs.
Schotts, the UAW Local 909 health and safety representative, heard the words no one wants to hear: “We’ve got an incident.”
When he arrived, another bad sign: Workers were standing around and machinery wasn’t running. Marcel Chagnon, a 53-year-old machine repair worker, was found dead near a pick-and-place robot.
Schotts got to work. He cordoned off the area with yellow caution tape and started taking pictures.
“At that point it was real, but it wasn’t real,” said Schotts, a journeyman pipe fitter. “It was like a dream.”
The long day was filled with interviews by the local police, county coroner and the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“I stayed numb for a few days,” he said.
The victim’s co-worker, who witnessed the incident, would never return to the plant.
Schotts said former UAW President Stephen P. Yokich told him, “All you have to do is your job and keep people safe.”
“This fatality brought that to life for me. I can’t walk by (unsafe) things. You can’t cut corners because you don’t know what cut corner will lead to a fatality,” Schotts added.
No one knows exactly why the rigging failed, Schotts said. But it made everyone in the skilled trades take stock. A survey led to 75 jobs where health and safety questions were raised. The majority had acceptable safe operating procedures (SOPs), and 25 were deemed safe if no deviations were made. Changes were made in SOPs for six jobs.
“We try to tighten up that process more and more each year,” Schotts said.
Mike Mack, the UAW Local 12 skilled-trades steward at Daimler-Chrysler’s Toledo (Ohio) North Assembly Plant, and Bob Geiner, the skilled-trades committeeman, got the call early in the morning of Feb. 12: incident in the battery washer area.
The 51-year-old victim, Michael Tiller, an electrician with 32 years of seniority, was found lying on the roller bed.
“Just please be hurt. Don’t be dead,” Mack recalled saying to himself. But by the time he got there, the coroner had been called.
The Toledo plant was the scene of a shooting in 2005, and rumors were already starting. There was wild speculation in the media about a “possible homicide.”
Mack, Geiner and plant chairman Dan Henneman knew they would have to get the facts out fast to stop the rumors. But first they acted to get the first-shift worker who found Tiller some immediate help.
The local’s employee assistance coordinator was called.
They met with management and other workers to determine the facts. They then met with the members, telling them what they knew then about the incident, which wasn’t much more than a highly regarded co-worker had died from an apparent fall, later ruled an accident by the coroner.
They made sure the immediate area of the accident was safe for members to return to their jobs by checking for electrical hazards and inactive safety devices.
“When there is a fatality, we have to assure our members that there is a safe environment,” Mack said.
Everyone knew something bad had happened when UAW Local 523 President Stan Burkeen went to the scene at the electrical arc furnace at the CC Metal Alloys plant in Calvert City, Ky., in January.
But like many skilled-trades workers, James Bains, the 64-year-old electrician who fell 66 feet to his death while in a man-lift changing light bulbs, was in a remote area of the plant.
Burkeen knew Bains – just 10 days away from his retirement was a “safe, conscientious worker who doesn’t take chances.”
The company’s health and safety representative was on the scene, as were OSHA and local authorities. But there was a change in attitude by the plant’s owner when the UAW Health and Safety Department sent its investigator, Burkeen said.
“The company let him in to look at the scene, but it wouldn’t let him in after that,” he said.
If a company has a commitment to health and safety, why, he thought, is he getting such a hard time from the plant owner?
A grievance over that issue has been filed. But the UAW offered the company the opportunity to participate in its health and safety programs at no cost. The company has been unwilling to commit.
“I’m going to keep pushing for the UAW programs,” Burkeen said, adding that the local’s health and safety committee found 75 issues they want addressed, including missing lock bolts on machinery and missing covers on electrical boxes. The company has been acting on these demands, he added.
Don Boehner, president of UAW Local 1596, had no problem getting the union’s investigator to the scene when Hector Rivas, a 57-year-old bus mechanic, died in March 2006 at the Roxbury, Mass., garage.
But it was pretty obvious what happened: Rivas was overcome by carbon monoxide from a generator inside a school bus service vehicle. The union brother who found him “took it really, really bad,” Boehner recalled.
The Boston City Schools, which contracts with First Student for bus service, offered grief counseling, which was accepted.
But had it not been for the city’s decision to accept a low-ball bid, Boehner thought, the counseling probably wouldn’t be necessary.
“To me, it was in direct relationship to the death,” Boehner said.
Boehner said First Student started out on the right foot, committing itself to preventive maintenance. But understaffed, and over the objections of the mechanics, the company began letting buses leave garages without proper maintenance. A collision due to faulty brakes put 12 children in the hospital. Another worker broke his pelvis when he was ordered to use a jack in an unsafe manner.
In September the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found First Student negligent in 12 health and safety standards. The company was fined $95,000 in total.
The community, tired of its children on unsafe buses, got behind the effort to change First Student’s operation.
When the fatality occurred, there was an outpouring of support for Rivas and his family, and outrage over First Student’s actions and the city’s lack of oversight, he said. Before the fatality, workers had asked for pipes to screw into the generators to ventilate the areas where they were working.
The Steelworkers, who represent bus drivers, and religious and civic groups partnered with Local 1596 to press for change. Four city councilors joined the effort.
One immediate change: The city’s representative now is in contact with the local on bus safety issues.
“The city is suddenly talking with us and wants to be involved with us,” Boehner said. “We have clout now that we never had before. Unfortunately, it took the death of a dear brother to make it happen.”
“Our goal is to never let him be forgotten and to ensure that there are no unsafe buses for the children of Boston,” Boehner said.
Delegates welcomed back one of America’s most respected experts on the impact of globalization on working people, professor Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Shaiken began with a virtual trip down the halls of UAW Local 600, which represents workers at Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Mich. He described the fight to organize Ford and the broad social benefits that resulted.
“What the UAW did was create a bridge to the middle class. The higher wages won by the UAW spread throughout the economy and the whole economy benefited,” Shaiken said. “The pressures of globalization have forced millions of Americans to cross that bridge in a reverse direction out of the middle class.”
Current rules of globalization affecting workers of all countries are not inevitable, Shaiken said.
“The issue isn’t globalization itself, but the rules of the game which determine who wins and who loses,” he said, adding: “That’s why we need national health insurance, labor rights in trade agreements that allow wages to rise in developing countries, and labor rights in this country that allow workers to freely choose whether they want a union.”
UAW Local 686 unit shop chair
Who they are: This amalgamated local represents many UAW members, including more than 4,700 who produce radiators, oil coolers, condensers, evaporators and HVAC units at Delphi Harrison Thermal Systems.
His issues: “Our members have taken on the anxiety of the looming Delphi bankruptcy. It’s hard because they want action now, but I tell them our No. 1 priority is to come to work, do our jobs well and continue to get trained, because nobody has taken anything away from us yet. Some of the new people have UAW relatives, so they are familiar with the union, but others are still learning.”
UAW Local 259 president
Long Island, N.Y.
Who they are: This local has been representing members at N.Y.-area auto dealerships since 1957, covering utility workers to service shop personnel. They currently represent more than 1,800 at 96 dealerships in the New York, Long Island and New Jersey area.
What’s new: “We also represent workers at foreign-model dealerships, including Toyota, Nissan and Volkswagen. We represent the worker, not the product.”
His issue: “We care about all issues affecting all working men and women: health care, trade and workers’ rights. But we also care about the preservation and advancement of the working class.”
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said he visited the Special Convention on Collective Bargaining to thank UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and the union for the time and dedication spent fighting for working people.
“The eyes of the world are watching,” Kilpatrick said.
Gettelfinger and the UAW are not afraid to stand up to corporate America or “speak truth to power.”
Described by UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles as a friend of working people, the Democratic mayor told delegates “stay strong, because the contract negotiated at the bargaining table effects workers everywhere and impacts the global economy.”
“Be like my grandfather told me you would be,” Kilpatrick said.
“Be strong and you demand an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”
Kilpatrick’s grandfather was a member of UAW Local 600. The union, the mayor said, helped his grandfather raise a family and offer hope to two generations.
“He came to Detroit from South Carolina, He raised five children, sent one daughter off to Congress and had a grandson become the mayor of Detroit,” he said.
Because of the UAW, Kilpatrick said, “my grandfather dared to dream.”
Scott Bailey Clifthorne
Local 2865 president
University of California
Who they are: These 12,000 graduate teaching assistants, readers, tutors and undergraduate academic student employees are part of the union’s technical, office and professionals (TOP) sector.
What’s new: “The UAW is actually the industry leader for organizing academic student employees. About 100,000 UAW members are workers at TOP locals.”
His issue: “The 2006 midterm elections were huge for us. It seems pretty clear that the Employee Free Choice Act will be vetoed if it passes the Senate. So I think it takes a change at the top level.”
Niels Chapman Jr.
UAW Local 5287 president
High Point, N.C.
Who they are: In 2005 these Thomas Built Bus workers voted for union representation in an NLRB-supervised election after a card check the previous year was challenged by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
His issues: “The Employee Free Choice Act is a powerful tool. It gives us the flexibility to make decisions, to choose collective bargaining agreements. For some, the union can be a hard pill to swallow in a right-to-work state. Sometimes an individual might think, ‘I can get this for free.’ I tell them nothing’s free. Our roads don’t get paved for free. We can’t take our eyes off what matters.”
When Jim Doyle speaks about saving the U.S. auto industry and keep good-paying jobs in America, it’s personal.
“Both my parents lost auto jobs,” the president of the Level Field Institute told UAW delegates on the second day of the union’s Special Convention on Collective Bargaining.
The institute is a Washington-based policy institute which advocates creating and preserving U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Doyle is quick to point out his campaign is not “Japan bashing.”
“At Level Field, we welcome foreign investment. We just give American consumers the facts they need to make informed decisions,” he said.
The facts show America is losing 10 jobs for every one that foreign auto companies bring in. Most parts production as well as research and development that go into foreign autos are not U.S.-based.
The institute publishes auto industry facts in the form of scorecards on domestic content. If you’re thinking about buying a Toyota Camry or a Chevy Malibu, for example, click on www.levelfieldinstitute.org and you can see which car creates more jobs in America.
“For every 1,000 vehicles the Big Three sell in this country, 33 U.S. jobs are created. For every 1,000 Toyotas sold here, only 12 U.S. jobs are created,” Doyle said.
The institute’s ultimate message is this: “What you drive, drives America.”
UAW Local 2209
Fort Wayne, Ind.
Who they are: They manufacture GM, Chevrolet and GMC pickups. Last November they launched a new model of the GMT-900.
His issue: “Outsourcing. We retain several hundred jobs with our new Material Sequencing Center. This is the kind of work companies traditionally outsource, but we were able to convince management to keep it in-house. One of the unique things we did was create teams of management and union personnel to organize the center to make it more efficient.”
UAW Local 2488
Who they are: These members build vehicles at the Mitsubishi Motors plant.
What’s new: “The good news is that Mitsubishi and Local 2488 are recovering from a period of layoffs. Sales have improved, and we are now in production of our 2008 models.”
Her issue: “Who is in the White House affects our jobs and our negotiations. This present administration has eroded the middle class. President Bush has done what business wanted him to do.”
Last year saw Ohioans elect many working family-friendly candidates to statewide office and end a Republican-led culture of corruption and hostility to labor.
Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, one of those candidates elected with the help of UAW activists, said it’s now time to change the direction of the nation.
Strickland, who spoke the first day of the Special Convention on Collective Bargaining, told delegates that most Americans are just trying to maintain what they have while corporate greed goes unchecked.
“They want the basics,” said Strickland, the son of a union steelworker. “They want to be a good citizen. They want a government that keeps its word to them.”
The plant where Strickland’s father worked in southeastern Ohio is now shuttered, with 6,000 decent-paying union jobs lost. Going up in its place, he said, is a Super Wal-Mart, with its always low-wages and scant benefits.
“It’s time to stand up for working families,” Strickland, a former congressman, said. “Ohio now has a governor who stands on picket lines. Ohio now has a governor who believes in the right of working men and women to organize.”
Strickland said he understands the distress of working people tried of a “government that seems not to care for you or your loved ones’ but asked union activists to work even harder in 2008 to put a worker-friendly president in the White House.
David ‘Skip’ Angles
UAW Local 533 president
Who they are: These Honeywell workers have manufactured spark plugs since 1936. They 680 members – who make 800,000 spark plugs a day -- supply Ford Motor Co. and General Motors.
His issues: “Definitely trade and the outsourcing of jobs. In 2004 Honeywell announced they couldn’t compete globally and planned to send half of the Fostoria plant’s work to Mexico beginning in April. They’ll retain their premium spark plug work. Our morale is in the basement, and this kind of business will never stop in manufacturing until our unfair trade laws are changed.”
UAW Local 12 vice chair
Who they are: The 3,400 members at DaimlerChrysler’s Toledo Jeep plant produce the Jeep Liberty and Wrangler, and the Dodge Nitro.
His issue: “Both of my parents – my late father, Sam, and 81-year-old mother, Ruby – worked for Jeep. They are my heroes. And one of the most important issues to me is health care. We’ve made some changes to our health care to retain what we have, especially for retirees. I have a lot of friends who are retired, and I’m hoping we preserve health care and pensions for active and retired members. It’s going to be tough.”
In her remarks to 1,500 delegates on the final day of the UAW Special Convention on Collective Bargaining, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm posed a telling question.
“Some say organized labor is not competitive in a global economy, that you all just don’t get it. Will those of you who don’t know anyone who has been touched by someone who has lost a job please raise your hand?”
Not one hand went up.
“That’s what I thought,” the Democratic governor said.
Granholm, in her second term as governor, reminded delegates that Michigan was once a state that workers flocked to for jobs.
Before she was elected governor, Granholm said, Michigan had lost 189,000 manufacturing jobs. Since 2000 it has lost a total of 261,000 manufacturing jobs.
“We’ve cut business taxes to encourage investment here, resulting in 30 percent less revenue,” she said. “Despite that, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.”
Slashing business taxes alone doesn’t encourage investment by job providers, she said. “This ‘cuts-only philosophy’ is a race to the bottom,” she said, echoing similar words on a UAW banner in Cobo Hall.
“Our struggle to keep jobs in Michigan mirrors the struggle of all manufacturing states nationwide,” the governor said.
The real question is what are we going to do as a nation in the face of this? Granholm’s answer: “We must elect leaders who will level the playing field up, not down, and negotiate trade agreements that don’t give away the store.”
Granholm stressed that UAW members are on the front lines and encouraged them to push the current administration toward developing a manufacturing agenda.
“There’s no doubt your clout as a union has been heard throughout Washington,” she said, “but we need a new president.”
Indeed, the governor’s priorities in the 2008 election are clear.
“My issues will be universal health care, fair trade and investing in our workers,” Granholm said.
The 2007 bargaining resolution sets our union’s agenda for workplace democracy and economic justice. It draws on the UAW’s proud history of facing up to challenges of the day and responding with creativity, vision and solidarity.
As the resolution states: “Our approach to bargaining follows the high road. We believe competition can and should combine high wages, comprehensive benefits, and safe and healthy working conditions, with high levels of productivity, quality and responsiveness to customers.”
At the Special Convention on Collective Bargaining, delegates debated various sections of the resolution, including:
• Protecting Workers in Employer Restructurings, dealing with bargaining in bankruptcy, workplace closings, relocations and restructurings; and temporary, contingent, supplemental and contract workers.
• Bargaining to Organize, dealing with card check and neutrality, and protecting and expanding the right to organize.
• Securing Good Jobs for the Future, dealing with investment commitments, new products, services and jobs; skilled trades in the 21st century, outsourcing and privatization; and other job and income security issues.
• Improving Workers’ Standard of Living, dealing with wages and salaries; profit sharing and gain sharing; work time and flex-time scheduling; and Supplemental Unemployment Benefits.
• Providing Health and Retirement Security, dealing with health care, pensions, savings plans, other retiree issues and group insurance.
• Making Workplaces Safer, dealing with preventing workplace illness and injury; protecting the rights of injured workers; and preventing and responding to workplace violence.
• Creating Opportunities for Lifelong Learning, dealing with training and employee development; and apprenticeship and continuing education in the trades.
• Pursuing Innovative Benefits, dealing with work and family benefits; long-term care; group legal services; employee discounts; benefits for servicemen and servicewomen; employee assistance programs; and retirement options.
• Ensuring Justice in the Workplace and Beyond, dealing with nondiscrimination and equal opportunity; sexual harassment; democracy, equality and employee involvement; privacy in the workplace; discipline, grievance procedure and union representation; workers with disabilities; and V-CAP and political action.
• Making Employers Socially Responsible, dealing with environmental responsibility; product and service quality; international conduct; and community involvement.
In a spirited keynote address to the UAW Special Convention on Collective Bargaining, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said that unity and determination are key to winning justice for union members and working families.
Citing the diversity of the UAW membership — from auto workers and health care workers to auto parts workers to public employees — Gettelfinger stressed that all UAW members “are united by our common goals and common dreams, not just for ourselves, but for all working people.”
Gettelfinger recognized UAW members from eight UAW local unions who are on strike, recognized thousands of workers in newly organized bargaining units, and called forcefully for new approaches to trade, health care and U.S. bankruptcy law.
Stressing the need for continued political action by UAW members and families, Gettelfinger pointed out that factors outside the bargaining process can have a dramatic impact on working people.
“We know all too well that negotiating good contracts and organizing more workers won’t matter if unfair trade agreements mean that our jobs are shipped to low-wage countries, or if companies are allowed to destroy labor agreements by hiding behind phony bankruptcies, or if employers refuse to negotiate first contracts by manipulating labor laws,” he said.
Gettelfinger renewed the union’s call for “single-payer, universal, comprehensive national health care that covers every man, woman and child in America.”
He also called for a new approach to trade agreements, citing America’s $132 billion automotive trade deficit. “It’s time to stop the outsourcing of American jobs and with that the race to the bottom for the lowest wages,” he said.
UAW members at Delphi, Dana Corp. and other firms are facing difficult challenges due to flawed U.S. bankruptcy laws, Gettelfinger said. The UAW is working with other unions to protect wages, health care and pensions, but legislative reform is also needed.
While some UAW negotiating efforts receive more media attention than others, Gettelfinger stressed that to the UAW, “each and every negotiation is high profile and critically important.”
He added that the challenges currently facing working people in organizing, bargaining and politics “reaffirm that a union is the only instrument that provides workers a voice and equity and justice in the workplace.”
“We will enter auto negotiations and all negotiations united and determined to win the best possible contract for our membership,” he said. “The problems we encounter are big, but the commitment and determination of our membership is bigger.”
Rising like a sunburst against a royal blue and goldenrod backdrop, the yellow UAW logo shone brightly inside Cobo Hall, mirroring the Motor City’s unseasonably warm temperatures outside.
About 1,500 delegates, alternates and guests gathered for the 2007 UAW Special Convention on Collective Bargaining, held March 27-28 in Detroit, to discuss issues crossing all industries and sectors of the union. The purpose of the two-day event: to examine issues as they affect our active and retired members, and set the agenda for how we will negotiate contracts over the next four years.
The convention’s theme, “Forging Our Future,” was clear with large banners such as “Fighting for economic and social justice” and “Health care should be a right not a privilege,” adorning the hall walls.
Key issues in the upcoming round of collective bargaining include jobs, temporary and contingent workers, bargaining rights, investments, wages and compensation, health care and pensions, workplace safety, quality of life programs, democracy and fairness, and social responsibility.
In his keynote address, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger emphasized, “What unites us as a union is stronger than what divides us.”
Not forgetting the past, Gettelfinger acknowledged several retired IEB members who were in attendance, including UAW President Emeritus Owen Bieber, former Secretary-Treasurer Ruben Burks, former Vice Presidents Gerald Bantom, Ernest Lofton, Stan Marshall, Richard Shoemaker and Marc Stepp; former Region 2B Director Jack Sizemore and former Region 10 Director Bob Vicars.
On the final day, delegates from 850 locals across the United States and Canada passed the 103-page comprehensive resolution, which will help guide the efforts of local and national bargaining committees in the months and years ahead.
The UAW is scheduled to open contract negotiations in July with U.S. auto companies. Contract talks in aerospace, agricultural implement, health care, higher education and other industries are also on the agenda.
The following excerpts are from UAW President Ron Gettelfinger’s keynote address to delegates at the Special Convention on Collective Bargaining:
“It is through our collective action that we can fight for our future on every front available to us: at the bargaining table, on the worksite floor, in the courtroom and in the political arena. And, if need be, on the picket line, like members of UAW Local 364 who work at Vincent Bach in Elkhart, Ind., and our members of seven other local unions who are currently on strike. … Our union does not want to strike, but when employers act as if collective bargaining is a one-way street and not a two-way street, then we will do what we have to do. Make no mistake about it; collective bargaining is not collective begging, and where we have demonstrated cooperation it would be a grave mistake to equate our actions to capitulation.”
* * *
“Our union has always had a three-pronged, interconnected approach: collective bargaining, organizing and political action. The UAW is proud that we are a servicing organization. Our local union membership is our highest priority. …
“It is that commitment to our membership that fuels our organizing because we know that our strength grows as our numbers grow.
“And, to protect what we win at the bargaining table and to speak for those who have no voice, we work hard in the political arena to elect those who stand with workers. As we know, far too often, issues raised at the bargaining table are controlled by forces that are beyond the bargaining process. That is why we must continually stress political involvement throughout our union, and continue to be part of a political movement that can turn around the national and international policies that threaten the working class in our country and around the globe.”
* * *
“With a $3 million signing bonus, $750,000 under his belt and a mere 99 days on the payroll, Steve Miller steered U.S. Delphi operations into a mechanical bankruptcy. This was simple enough because he came armed with this intention before his first day on the job.
“The filing took place on Oct. 8, 2005, ahead of the Oct. 18 new bankruptcy law so Miller could ensure his $388 million Key Employee Compensation Plan and other perks would not be disturbed.
Miller knew nothing about the business and even less about the workers, but it did not matter because all he cared about was how much he and his bankruptcy gang could derive financially from dissecting a once proud company. The legal bills continue to mount, in excess of $10 million dollars a month, and the obscene executive compensation continues. On March 22 another $37 million was awarded to nondeserving, underperforming, so-called executives who are making out like bandits.
“While it may seem unbelievable that our laws allow companies to award bonuses to top executives while gutting the wages and benefits of workers, this underscores that it is time to reform U.S. bankruptcy laws to ensure that workers are not discarded while executives are rewarded.
“It is clear that these bottom feeders file bankruptcy to break the union. Our message to the Steve Millers of corporate America is this: You will never do that. The UAW, and other unions, will always be there to fight one more day, no matter how long it takes.”