AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More than 49,000 auto workers from General Motors plants and parts warehouses are on strike. At issue - wages, closed factories and treatment of temporary employees.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hire our temps or we won't work. Hire our temps or we won't work. Hire our temps or we won't work. Hire our temps or we won't work.
CORNISH: GM's contract with the United Auto Workers expired over the weekend, and though strikes are underway, contract negotiations between the UAW and GM are ongoing. UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg has been in those talks. He joins us now from Detroit.
Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
BRIAN ROTHENBERG: Well, thank you for having me, Audie.
CORNISH: Can you tell us anything about where negotiations stand at this moment?
ROTHENBERG: Well, you know, meetings have been continuing. The dialogue continued all day yesterday, and at 10 a.m., they convened and started convening meetings here. What I can tell you is it will still take a while. It's unfortunate, but after months of negotiating - and these auto contracts, if you've ever seen them, are hundreds of provisions long, and only 2% have been agreed to by General Motors. So when you have 98% of the agreement to go, that's going to take a while.
CORNISH: We heard earlier in that audio people saying, hire our temps. How big of an issue is this specifically? How much of a sticking point is it - the idea of bringing temps on full-time?
ROTHENBERG: Well, you know, the temporary issue initially was created because the auto companies wanted to be able to have people as fill for, you know, people that were absent or people who were sick. And so they are union members; however, they don't have some of the same provisions. And one of the key things - and we're not going to negotiate publicly about it, but one of the key things that's no surprise is that our temporary workers need to have seniority rights. They need to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and how this is going to work. You know, I think that most of our long-term employees, most of our members - we all want our UAW members to have that same kind of job security that everybody else in America should have, and that's part of the bigger issue here.
CORNISH: I want to jump in because GM has said that it's offered to invest more than $7 billion in plants in the U.S. They're talking about adding some jobs in the course of doing that, also increasing wages. It sounds good, so what are we missing?
ROTHENBERG: Well, part of what you're missing that Vice President Dittes, the head of our GM department, indicated very clearly that, you know, they didn't bring this to us until the 11th hour - literally an hour and a half before the deadline. In addition to that, there's still a lot of other issues to wrap up. You've got 98% of the contract that hasn't been agreed to.
CORNISH: But help people understand just some of the details here. GM paid, you know, $10,000 in profit-sharing bonuses to eligible workers in February. Now they're offering $8,000 for an approval bonus. I mean, there is money on the table here, yet you're saying that there's 98% of the deal to be done.
ROTHENBERG: There is. None of those provisions have been agreed to, and, you know, at this point, they've achieved $35 billion in record profits in North America over the last three years, $8 billion in profits last year alone. And those profit sharings were things that we actually negotiated in the last contract. So here's the bottom line here. When this company was going bankrupt, these workers took significant - they took a significant effort to try to make sure that this company was going to have that profit and be that profitable. They stood up for this company, and they even couldn't even strike in 2011. They gave up their strike rights for one contract series.
Now that these companies have been profitable, they want GM to stand up for them, including those workers, including things like quality, affordable health care. So, you know, we're far apart, and, you know, when you come - if you're serious about negotiating a contract, you don't throw something out an hour and a half before the deadline.
CORNISH: Brian, this negotiation comes as the Department of Justice is investigating the UAW for corruption. Several former members of the leadership have been convicted on various charges. Given that this all involves the misuse of union money at the highest levels, should your workers trust you?
ROTHENBERG: You know what? This - they should trust themselves, and that's because the union is themselves. I mean, you know, every time somebody goes into a negotiating room, these are local union negotiators sitting with the UAW GM department. They were elected by their plant to be here as part of this process. When we voted to go on strike, we went to a meeting with the UAW GM Council, and 100% of them voted to go on strike. And all of them...
CORNISH: So they've got to ignore what's going on at the top right now is what you're saying.
ROTHENBERG: Yes. All of them are locally elected. They're not concerned - they're concerned about their work. They're concerned about their workers. They're concerned about their livelihood. And they are at the table, and they are part of this, so that is noise to folks. What really matters is that you go home and you're safe, that there's health and safety when you're home, that you're paid well, that you have benefits so your family can be taken care of with their health care, that you have, you know, rights to grow into your job so that you have some certainty. Those are the things that are important.
CORNISH: We've got just a few seconds left. Could this affect future negotiations - say, with Fiat Chrysler or Ford?
ROTHENBERG: Well, Walter Reuther a long time ago established the idea of pattern bargaining, and pattern bargaining - it means you lead with one company, and then you use that as a pattern to negotiate with the others. But here's the most important thing because this really is about our workers. It's about them. The most important thing for people across America to do is, if you have a family member, if you are part of the GM family, if you're a friend or a neighbor, support those folks. It is not easy to go on strike.
CORNISH: That's UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg.
Thank you for talking with us.
ROTHENBERG: Thank you for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.