General Motors and the United Auto Workers are at an impasse in negotiations on a new local contract for union members employed at the company’s assembly plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky where GM builds the prized Chevrolet Corvette.
Earlier this month, members of UAW Local 2164 “overwhelmingly” rejected a tentative proposal aimed at ending a dispute about the local contract dispute at the Corvette plant, which has been festering since the summer of 2019. The union struck GM for 40 days in 2019 to settle the national contract, covering wages and benefits.
But the local dispute at the Bowling Green plant went unresolved, according to Brian Ferrett, president of UAW Local 2164.
David Barnas, GM spokesman, told TheDetroitBureau.com in an e-mail, “We will continue to negotiate with the local UAW in good faith and will run regular production while talks continue.”
Ferrett said the local membership was talking about a potential strike in October, but UAW national leadership asked them to defer the request for strike authorization. At the time, the UAW was engaged in protracted strike against the John Deere Co. and facing a referendum on one-member-one vote that changed the way the union will select top officers in the future.
UAW headquarters in Detroit asked Local 2164 to try again for a settlement. GM presented what was described as the company’s “final offer” to Local 2164’s bargaining committee, Ferrett said. Before the vote could be scheduled, the Bowling Green plant was damaged during an outbreak of killer tornadoes that swept through western Kentucky.
More than 100 finished Corvettes stored in the plants were also damaged and later scrapped. GM’s final offer was put to a vote of union members and decisively rejected, Ferrett said.
Technology and sourcing key issues
The union’s bargaining committee declined to endorse the proposed agreement because of major concerns about some key issues, Ferrett said in a telephone interview with TheDetroitBureau.com. One thing the union wanted was guarantees the 3-D printing of key parts included in Corvette’s bill of materials are handled by union members, he said.
UAW Local 2164 also wants the jobs “pinstriping” the Vettes “insourced” to the Local’s members, Ferrett said. Currently the pinstriping is handled by a contractor, whose employees do the work inside the Bowling Green plant.
“We’d also like some guarantees the Corvette will continue to be built here,” said Ferrett, who transferred to the Bowling Green plant from Ohio when GM began shutting down the assembly plant in Lordstown.
The history of Lordstown plant, which GM closed permanently after the 2019 settlement, remains salient in Bowling Green, which took in more than 350 former Lordstown employees. About 150 retired or transferred back to other GM plants in Ohio but about 200 remain at Bowling Green.
The Bowling Green plant also has been buffeted by COVID-19 even as GM tries to squeeze out more vehicles since dealers are short of inventory — particularly highly desirable vehicles, such as the Corvette, which is GM’s signature vehicle.
However, the UAW has not approved a strike at the Bowling Green plant, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.
COVID keeps workers home
Ferrett said more than 100 production workers at Bowling Green were off last week because they had the virus or had to self-quarantine because of exposure to the virus. Another 100 workers are off this week because of the virus and local schools had to curtail in-person classes.
GM has brought in nearly two dozen temporary employees to work in the plant in past couple of weeks, Ferrett said. “I’ve never seen them hire temporary workers in the wintertime,” he added.
Last summer, GM, which for decades assumed it had surplus of blue-collar labor, set up shop at a “Job Fair” in Bowling Green to try and lure job applicants into the plants, underscoring a labor shortage that has begun to creep up on automakers.
The shortage can be attributed to a few things, starting with more competition. New workers can make more money working at Amazon or UPS, which absorb a growing share of the nation’s blue-collar work force, than in an auto plant where temps make $17 to $18 an hour. If hired as full-time employees, they could make $23 per hour in their first full year.
COVID, or its ever-present threat, and the nature of working an automotive assembly line — employees often work elbow to elbow — also has discouraged applicants, according to UAW officials who note the union had trouble filling temporary jobs in GM plants in places such as Wentzville, Missouri, Fort Wayne, Indiana and even Flint, Michigan.
The Stellantis plant in Toledo, Ohio also could not recruit temporary workers, union officials said.
The potential shortfall in hiring will set the stage for a contentious round of negotiations in 2023 when workers will also be seeking substantial wage hikes, an end to two-tier wage scales, and general improvements in wages and benefits.