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Howes: UAW's Curry targets wages, investment, battery-plant jobs


Ray Curry’s in a hurry. He wants to win raises from Detroit’s automakers for 150,000 members, secure jobs and investment at existing plants and bargain legacy wage rates at the industry’s growing network of battery plants — just this year.

But he needs to win reelection as president of the United Auto Workers this month, potentially as the first in the union's 87-year history to claim its top job by a direct election of members. It won’t be easy following mixed results in the first round of voting and a corruption probe that forced the UAW into federal supervision and convicted 11 union officials — including two former presidents — on federal charges. Several went to prison.

"Believe me: it hasn't escaped their memory, their landscape about the corruption case," Curry told The Detroit News in a wide-ranging interview, referring to the union rank-and-file. "Members are interested in bread-and-butter concerns. Members were interested heavily in what took place. There are real stopgaps in place to ensure that this doesn't happen again."

More:UAW presidential challenger Fain promises sweeping change to union culture, strategies

The hangover lingers. Like Curry, none of the candidates from the UAW’s controlling Reuther Administrative Caucus — excluding those running unopposed — won their seats in the first round of voting in November. Motivated dissidents mobilized to capture the secretary-treasurer’s office and to force Curry and Ford Department head Chuck Browning into runoffs already underway, only months before national contract talks begin with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV.

These are fraught times for the UAW, a labor powerhouse diminished by the misdeeds of former leaders greasing metaphoric palms with the dues money of everyday members. It's also an aging institution facing transformational change in its bellwether auto industry, a union whose future rests on multibillion-dollar investment decisions, consumer acceptance of electric vehicles and government policies it mostly cannot control.

The UAW "will face a serious challenge in getting what they want because the industry is in transition," said Marick Masters, former director of labor at Wayne State University and a professor of business at the Mike Ilitch School of Business. "Regardless of who wins, the new president is going to face the same structural challenges the union faces."

Among them: maximizing UAW employment levels in emerging electrification sites; representing all segments of the union's membership — higher education, health care workers, public employees — not just autoworkers; and continuing momentum built in recent months for reform.

Still, Curry, 57, sounds like a man undeterred by electoral uncertainty, prepared to shepherd the union into a new era of leadership, and energized by national bargaining negotiations that promise to shape the union's role — and potential growth — amid the auto industry's accelerating pivot to battery-powered electric vehicles.

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Ray Curry Interview
Ray Curry Interview
Daniel Howes, The Detroit News

Top priorities in the coming talks with GM, Ford and Stellantis will be "job security," he said, protecting jobs of current members by ensuring continued investment in their work sites; boosting base wages as a hedge against the surging inflation eating into members' buying power; and, in a twist, seeking improvements to pension funding and reviving COLA, the cost-of-living adjustments mostly scrapped in the 2005 and 2007 deals.

Is electrification a threat to the UAW? No, Curry told The News: "The one difference is we're not sitting on the sidelines. We're actively involved and engaged in conversations as new technology became available and new products were being discussed. We want to understand projected volumes. We want to understand customer demand. We want to understand the marketing that's taking place around the vehicles."

He continued: "Every one of the announcements on electric vehicles has been increased employee headcount. And there is real opportunity about future product that could be introduced, meeting customer demand and also the growth and expansion across the U.S."

'Powertrain of the future'

That's now. What an electrified future portends for the UAW and its members employed by the Detroit Three is likely to emerge from contracts to be negotiated toward a Sept. 14 deadline — especially for a union whose overarching goal, Curry said, is to stabilize and grow dues-paying membership at the same time. The union's best shot: organizing battery plants so far built or planned in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

"It is the powertrain of the future," Curry said. "Each one of the OEMs acknowledged that as part of the movement to battery cells and other types of production. I believe they should be master agreement wages. And I've stressed the point that we have a standard for what powertrain workers are paid.

"It's not a situation about establishing something different because of new technology or otherwise. There's a rate that's out there and we believe that rate is applicable to our members. Our members will build the powertrain of the future."

Here's the contrast illustrating Curry's position: Workers on the floor of GM's joint-venture Ultium LLC battery plant in Warren, Ohio — awaiting the start of bargaining on their first UAW contract — are paid $16.50 an hour. UAW members covered under the UAW-GM national master agreement will reach $32.32 an hour by September, effectively double the current battery-plant rate.

Welcome to the central battleground for the next president and the looming contract talks, this town's quadrennial rite whose diminished stature belies its enduring importance. The UAW spent a dozen years trying to bury the so-called "second-tier wages" grudgingly bargained in the foreshadow of the Great Recession, and it pretty much succeeded in exorcising that stain on union solidarity by 2019.

Resurrecting the idea in contracts to represent battery-plant workers is a nonstarter for Curry and would-be bargainers because it would risk rekindling the resentment stoked by two-tier wages among rank-and-file members. How and whether the UAW can successfully bargain deals for battery plants yet to be opened are by definition open questions, but Curry said it's both doable and preferable.

"It's critical that they succeed in organizing the battery plants," said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "A lot of value of the vehicle is going to migrate to batteries and software. That's where the value is. They are going to be a lot of battery plants, and they're going to be dotted all over the country."

National contract negotiations are just that — negotiations. Should automakers oppose wrapping battery-plant sites into respective national master agreements, in part because so far each one is a joint venture with a foreign partner, Curry insists there is an alternative: "We could still get the powertrain rates and the benefits at those locations and not just necessarily be under a master agreement.

"It could be that we negotiate with Ultium-Chem," the newly opened battery plant in Warren, Ohio, "and we get the same 'me-too' agreements with regards to auto and be under Ultium-Chem. The end goal is to grow the membership, and that's what we see as the opportunity with these battery locations."

The runoff

Curry first has to get elected to a full term.

The former secretary-treasurer and Region 8 director was elevated to the presidency on June 28, 2021, when then-President Rory Gamble stepped down early. If elected to a full four-year term, Curry would be on track for the longest run as UAW president since two-termer Ron Gettelfinger left office in 2010.

There are no guarantees. Challenger Shawn Fain, an international UAW administrative representative in the union's Stellantis department, outperformed expectations with 37.6% of the vote and forced the president into a runoff. He criticizes Curry — who tallied 38.2%, short of the more than 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff — for being too cozy with management, too ready to avoid the kind of confrontation that Fain believes could produce better contracts for members.

"Automakers have announced joint venture after joint venture, but we’ve seen zero plan and zero action to lock down this work under our master agreements," Fain said at a candidate debate over Zoom 10 days ago. "We need a change in perspective. We need leadership with a will to fight, and with real plans to take on our employers strategically. It’s time we put corporate America on notice that our members deserve their fair share and we’re coming for it.”

Asked about the criticism, Curry said his opponent "is trying to paint everyone with the same brush. My leadership skills, my past experience in collective bargaining and the national bargaining that I have been involved with has proven otherwise with regard to agreements. I've never settled short. I've been successful in bargaining."

Gotta get elected first, preferably by more than the 11% of members and retirees who returned their share of 1.1 million ballots mailed out for the first round of voting. Complaints of ballots not received and adequate notice not being given prodded the UAW and the federal monitor overseeing the election to institute fresh safeguards to get runoff ballots to eligible voters.

With approval by the monitor, the UAW devised six different reminder notifications for the runoffs. They include notices of when ballots are being mailed, a notice saying they have been mailed, and a notice saying that if a member has not received a ballot, call the hotline number of 855-433-8683 or go to uawvote.com to request a fresh ballot. The deadline to return ballots is Feb. 28, and counting is set to begin March 1.

"It is responding to learnings," said Curry, acknowledging the criticism over faulty ballot distribution. "When you think about the UAW, in 87 years of our history we've never had direct elections where ballots were mailed nationally. So there's definitely opportunities to ensure that situation does not occur again."

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @DanielHowesTDN

Daniel Howes is senior editor/business & columnist for The Detroit News.