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3 Big Automakers Reach Agreement with Union Workers on Contract Deals

Members of the United Automobile Workers union have given their backing to new contracts with the three big U.S. automakers, agreements that deliver hefty wage increases and other gains that had eluded the union for more than 20 years.

In the most closely contested vote, the tentative contract agreement at General Motors won the support of 55 percent of the nearly 36,000 members casting ballots, according to a tally from all the G.M. locals that the union posted on Thursday.

Tentative agreements with Ford Motor and Stellantis, the maker of brands including Jeep and Chrysler, appeared headed for approval by more decisive margins, nearly complete results there showed.

A spokesman for the union confirmed the accuracy of the tallies but declined to comment further.

The agreements are similar across the three automakers and raise the top wage for production workers 25 percent, to more than $40 over four and a half years, from $32. They were reached last month after a six-week wave of strikes that hobbled the companies — a strategy spearheaded by the union’s new president, Shawn Fain, who had vowed to take a more adversarial approach to negotiations than his predecessors.

The agreements appear to have quickly reverberated across the auto industry, with Toyota, Hyundai and Honda announcing significant wage increase at nonunion plants in the United States only days later.

“We call that the U.A.W. bump, and that stands for ‘U Are Welcome,’” Mr. Fain said in testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this week. “And we’re very proud of that. And when these workers decide to organize and join the U.A.W., they’re going to realize the full benefit of union membership and get what they’re fully due.”

The new contracts also included larger company contributions to workers’ retirement plans and the right to strike over plant closures. All three automakers declined to comment on the ratification votes.

Mr. Fain said the union was seeking to capitalize on its momentum by waging muscular organizing campaigns at nonunion plants, and, in remarks submitted to the Senate committee, he added that thousands of workers were already contacting the union and signing union cards.

But even Mr. Fain’s tough approach in the talks with the Big Three did not yield terms attractive enough to many union members. G.M. workers at several large plants voted against the tentative agreement by large margins.

In contrast, members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters recently approved a new contract at United Parcel Service with 86 percent support, while a new contract between the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood studios passed with 99 percent support.

Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, said Mr. Fain had achieved a major victory despite having taken office only a few months earlier with a goal of reorienting the union.

Dr. Givan said the union’s approach of initially striking at one plant at each of the three automakers and ramping up over time had “really upended a lot of conventional wisdom” in the labor movement and had proved unusually successful at reversing some concessions that the union had accepted years earlier, like the suspension of a cost-of-living adjustment.

“This shows that if workers build enough power, they can win things back,” she said.

U.A.W. members at Mack Truck also ratified a contract on Wednesday, after rejecting an initial agreement with the company.

Across the three automakers, skepticism toward the agreements arose in large part from veteran workers who felt that the proposed contracts did not go far enough to compensate them for years of concessions and weak wage growth, even given strong gains for newer workers. Wages for some newer workers will more than double over the next four years.

Huey Harris, a G.M. employee at a large truck assembly plant in Flint, Mich., who has worked at the company for over 20 years, said the deal should have gone further in rewarding veteran workers, though he ultimately voted for it. “The traditional people didn’t think they were offered enough in the contract,” he said.

Several longtime employees of the Big Three automakers said that even after the large gains of the new contract, they would not be making more than when they started their careers.

Curtis March, who works at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, said he made about $18 an hour once he reached the top wage for production workers at the company in the early 1990s, equivalent to more than $40 today when adjusted for inflation. He will make about $36 in the first year of the new contract.

Mr. March said the deal was likely to pass at Ford because it placated more recent employees, who outnumber veterans like him. Workers at his plant approved the deal after voting against several previous contracts.

Despite the ultimate success, the path to ratifying the contracts has included some internal strains for Mr. Fain and the union. Unite All Workers for Democracy, a reform group that played a key role in electing Mr. Fain and six other members of the U.A.W. executive board to their positions, declined to formally recommend that union members approve the contract even after Mr. Fain urged the group to do so at a recent meeting, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Instead, Unite All Workers passed a resolution committing it to stay neutral during the ratification vote, though it stated that the group “celebrates the record gains made in this agreement.”

Two of these people also said the union’s General Motors department had been less communicative and less proactive in distributing information about the contract to local union officials and members than the Ford and Stellantis departments.

The union declined to comment on these developments.

Ratification could also bring political benefits to President Biden, who waded into the negotiations over the summer and fall, and who risked angering business leaders by increasingly siding with the union’s members.

Administration officials were taken aback in August when Mr. Fain called for a 40 percent raise for autoworkers and a four-day workweek. Executives at the Big Three called the White House to ask if Mr. Fain was serious. A senior administration official said Biden aides had reassured them that the union wanted a deal, but acknowledged that the negotiations could go quite differently from the way the automakers were used to.

In mid-September, when Mr. Biden was in New York for meetings at the United Nations General Assembly, he joined aides on a video call to make a decision that he and his team had been building toward for weeks: to join autoworkers on a picket line in Detroit. That decision infuriated executives, the administration official said, but the White House saw it as a victory for the president and for workers, by making a clear statement about where Mr. Biden stood in the negotiations.

Some autoworkers argued that the union had erred by failing to expand the strike, which eventually included about one-third of the companies’ unionized workers in the United States, even more.

LaDonna Newman, another longtime Ford worker who opposed the contract because of its limited gains for veteran workers, said she believed the union could have won more at the bargaining table had it been willing to escalate further.

Still, she did not blame Mr. Fain for the outcome. “He walked into a burning building,” Ms. Newman said. “I give him a lot of kudos for having the courage to go against the corporations.”

Jim Tankersley and Sophia Lada contributed reporting.

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