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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.”

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 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.

She said the union’s approach of initially striking at a few plants 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.

“Employers have really assumed that once they got rid of something, they didn’t have to worry about it anymore,” Dr. Givan said. “This shows that if workers build enough power, they can win things back.”

In some respects, the relatively close margin of ratification could strengthen the union’s hand in future bargaining. Dr. Givan said it demonstrated that workers’ expectations were high and would add credibility to the union’s claims that it cannot settle for a weak contract.

“It demonstrates to employers that when you have the bargaining committee at the table and they say, ‘My members will never accept this offer,’ they’re serious,” 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 as the contracts brought strong gains for newer workers.

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.

The path to ratifying the contract 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.

Some autoworkers argued that the union had also erred by failing to expand the strike even more. The union began the strike at three plants — one owned by each of the automakers — and eventually widened it to include about one-third of the companies’ hourly workers in the U.S.

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.”

Sophia Lada contributed reporting.

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