Labor relations in the unionized automobile assembly industry in the united states: 1961-2006 By

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Richard N. Block


School of Labor and Industrial Relations

Michigan State University

East Lansing, Michigan USA 48824


Paper prepared for the Local Legislative Agenda for the Automotive Partnership Council for North America, Toluca, Mexico, 19-21 July 2006

July 13, 2006


Labor relations in the unionized automobile assembly sector in the United States experiencing what is likely the most turbulent period since the U.S. industry was organized by the United Auto Workers (UAW) between 1937 and 1941. Collective bargaining in the auto assembly sector can be analyzed be dividing the post-World War II period into three distinct time periods: 1946-1979; 1980-2004; and 2005-06. This paper will analyze labor relations at the firm level during each of these time periods.1


Through the late 1970’s, collective bargaining in the automobile industry exemplified the arm’s length collective bargaining system in the United States that had developed starting in the late 1930’s. By the early 1950’s, the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) had organized and established collective bargaining relationships with the Big Three - General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, as well as with the smaller auto producers – Nash Kelvinator, Studebaker-Packard, Hudson, and Kaiser Willys, and with American Motors, formed by a merger of Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson, in 1961 (Katz, 1987).

The relationship that was established had two major components: (1) corporate control over business decisions that unrelated to labor issues; and (2) negotiated terms and conditions of employment at both the corporate and local levels. Thus, the corporation exercised total control over such functions as product design, engineering, marketing, and pricing.

Negotiations were carried out at two levels; the firm level and the local level. Firm level bargaining was actually pattern bargaining. Under pattern bargaining, the UAW would negotiate a pattern-setting collective agreement with one “target” firm, and then attempt to apply that same agreement to the other firms. Although there were occasional deviations from the pattern, such as a profit-sharing agreement with AMC in 1961, these deviations were the exception. The basic point is that the UAW-represented employees of the GM, Ford, and Chrysler, enjoyed almost identical levels of wages and benefits

Pattern bargaining served the interests of the companies and the unions. From the point of view of the companies, it minimized variations in labor costs across their competitors. For the union, the uniformity of pay created an objective pay standard that was acceptable within the union, minimizing political costs to the leadership. (M at the M Footnote). Negotiations also occurred at the local/plant level. These addressed such matters as job classifications, job descriptions, seniority, and the many issues that occurred at the plant.

In order to avoid labor conflict, between 1948 and the later 1970’s , wage bargaining between the UAW and the industry and the resulting wage changes generally followed a formula. Wage adjustments were based on two main factors: an annual improvement factor (AIF) and cost-of-living (COLA). In principle, the AIF was designed to provide workers with wage increases as national productivity increased, and the COLA increases were designed to protect workers from a decline in real wages by increasing the money wage as the cost-of-living increased. COLA, the other component of the wage formula, provided 80% coverage for inflation between 1955 and the early 1970’s. The result of the formula was that wage increases were highly predictable, with variation determined primarily by the cost-of-living. (Katz, 1987).

During the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, fringe benefits came to account for an increasing share of employment costs in the industry. In addition to health insurance and pensions, by the late 1970’s, the fringe package included paid personal holidays, 30 (years)-and-out pensions, and a guaranteed income stream. Katz estimated that while fringe benefits accounted for only 11.1% of hourly compensation costs in 1948, they accounted for 42% of hourly compensation costs in 1981 (Katz, 1987).

It is important to note that during this post-World War II period, wage and benefit increases were unrelated to the short-term economic situation in the industry. Downturns in sales and production were addressed through temporary layoffs. Because these downturns had traditionally followed the business cycle, and had always recovered, the companies and the UAW negotiated Supplemental Unemployment Benefits (SUBS). This was a benefit that provided laid off Big Three employees with monetary benefits over and above unemployment insurance so that the autoworker received 95% of his or her take-home pay. The monies came from a SUB account funded with per worker-hour contribution made by the companies.

Overall, labor relations system in autos during the thirty-year post-World War II period reflected an era of economic success for the U.S. automobile assembly industry. The “Big Three” auto manufacturers – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, dominated the U.S. market. This was an era of high wages and employment growth, and collective bargaining outcomes reflected this economic success.


The changes in the automobile assembly industry in the United States since 1980 have been well documented in scholarly studies and the popular press and will not be repeated here. The major change is the continual decline in sales and market share of the traditional U.S. unionized domestic auto manufacturers, vis-à-vis nonunion non- U.S. manufacturers.3 This has continued unabated. For the first six months of 2006, GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler, sales, including Mercedes, declined 7.5% as compared to the first six months of 2005. The “purely” domestic U.S. automakers, GM and Ford, experienced an 8.9% sales decline. Toyota sales increased 9.8% during this period. (Automotive News, 2006).

This increase in market share for the non-U.S. based companies has coincided with the non-U.S. manufacturers opening manufacturing facilities in the United States. These facilities are all nonunion (Hill and Brahmst, 2003). It is these two trends that have been driving collective bargaining in the U.S. automobile industry over the last twenty-five years.

Labor Relations in the Auto Industry, 1980-2004. 4

While pattern bargaining continues to be a dominant characteristic of auto industry collective bargaining, the content of the pattern changed beginning in the early 1980’s. Through the 1970’s, the pattern generally focused on wage and benefit increases. Buffeted by employment declines in the industry in the early 1980’s, the focus of bargaining and the content of the pattern shifted from wage increases to job security starting in the early 1980’s. This shift of the focus of bargaining from increasing wages to enhanced job security that is the salient feature of firm-level collective bargaining in the auto industry during the last two decades.

The 1979 UAW-GM and UAW Ford agreements had no provision on job security. This is to be expected, as production worker employment in the industry had been generally increasing over the previous two decades. From a recession-trough low of 452,500 in 1958, production worker employment in Motor Vehicles and Equipment climbed to 708,000 in 1969 and to a historical high of 782,000 in 1978 (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, undated).

By 1980, production worker employment in the industry was only 575,000, a 26.5% decline in only two years. Believing that this decline was not a familiar cyclical fluctuation in employment, but rather a structural decline in the number of production employees in the industry, the UAW implemented a bargaining strategy aimed at maintaining employment security for its members working in the automobile assembly industry (“Job Security . . ., 1981).

Although the 1979 collective agreement was scheduled to expire in September, 1982, the economic crisis in the auto industry spurred the parties to early negotiations. The UAW and Ford signed a 31-month agreement in February, 1982. Reflecting the new UAW priority on employment security, the 1982 Ford-UAW agreement included a 24-month moratorium on plant closings and a commitment by Ford on subcontracting to “make every effort” to maintain employment. As part of a disincentive for Ford to reduce employment, the parties also agreed on a Guaranteed Income Stream, under which an employee with 15 years seniority would receive 50% of his/her hourly base wage. This percentage increased with the employee’s length of service, with the employee receiving a maximum of 95% of take-home pay, net of government benefits and earnings from another job. (“Pay Concessions . . .,” 1982; “Joint UAW-Ford Summary . . .,” 1982.)

Significantly, Ford obtained relief on monetary employee compensation, as the parties agreed on wage increase moderation. Although there would be no reductions in wage rates paid on the date of the agreement, the AIF was eliminated, and COLA adjustments were deferred. The parties agreed that there the employees would not receive their 26 paid personal holidays during the agreement, and a special December holiday would not be paid. (Joint UAW-Ford Summary . . .,” 1982). The February, 1982 agreement with Ford established the industry model that would eventually apply to GM, Ford, and, eventually Chrysler. Employees would obtain enhanced levels of job security and the company would obtain relief on wage compensation.

A month later, the UAW reached a similar, but not identical agreement with General Motors. The major difference between the two agreements was that GM agreed to rescind four plant closings that had been announced and agreed to an experimental “Lifetime Job Security Program” at four plants. The plan used attrition and alternative assignments both within and outside GM to provide job security to 80% of the facilities’ workforce. (“UAW Summary . . .”, 1982).

The pattern was initially not extended to Chrysler. In order for Chrysler to obtain loan guarantees from the U.S. government in 1979, the UAW was required to make special wage concessions to Chrysler, breaking parity with GM and Ford (Block, 2001). In 1983, however, the UAW and Chrysler agreed on a contract which restored wage parity with Ford and GM. Reflecting the continuing precariousness of Chrysler’s financial condition, no employment security provisions were incorporated in the Chrysler agreement. (“New Agreements . . ., 1983).

In the 1984 bargaining round, the UAW obtained additional job security The agreements included Protected Employee Program (PEP) at Ford and a Job Opportunity Bank-Security Program (JOBS) at GM that were essentially identical. PEP and JOBS provided job security for employees with at least one year of seniority in the event of technological change, outsourcing, productivity improvements, transfer of operations, and production consolidations. Job security was not provided for a decline in employment due to volume declines, although, as noted, such employees would be eligible for SUB benefits. (Agreement . . ., 1984; Agreements . . ., 1984).

In addition, the parties for the first time agreed upon a dedicated maximum financial commitment. Ford promised $280 million over the life of the agreement and GM promised $1 billion (Agreement . . ., 1984; Agreements . . ., 1984). This had the effect of institutionalizing the program while minimizing financial uncertainty for the companies and converting a component of discussions regarding the program into traditional negotiations over labor costs.

Although by 1984, the system architecture for GM and Ford of a financial commitment of job security was basically complete, the parties continued to make adjustments through 1993. Building on the guarantees in the PEP and JOBS program, it was but a small additional burden on GM and Ford to convert these security promises into numbers. In 1987, the Ford and GM agreements established Guaranteed Employment Numbers (GEN at Ford) and Secured Employment Levels (SEL) at GM at each plant. The GEN/SEL was to reduced by one position for every two employees who left the company because of normal attrition (resignation, death, or retirement). The agreements also prohibited plant closings. The financial commitment was increased to $500 million for Ford and $1.3 billion for GM. Significantly, sales volume-related declines were exempted, as persons on layoff due to volume declines would draw SUBS. (Agreement . . ., 1987; Agreements . . . , 1987).

Employment security was accompanied by wage moderation . The agreements incorporated a 3% general wage increase for 1987, but only lump sum bonuses at 3% for 1988 and 1989, thereby minimizing increases in the base wage on which many benefits (vacation, etc.) are based. Eighty-one cents of the $.86 COLA increase that had accumulated was also folded into the base wage (Agreement, 1987; Agreements . . . , 1987; UAW-Ford Report, 1987) .

The sales volume exception was addressed in 1990. The agreement limited layoffs for volume reasons to 36 weeks over the life of the agreement, with the employee either being recalled or shifted to the JOBS Bank/PEP, and off the SUB fund, if there is no job was available. Maximum funding was increased to $586 million at Ford and $1.7 billion at GM. (1990 National Agreement . . .; Agreements . . ., 1990; “General Motors, UAW . . ., 1990; “UAW-Provided . . . ,1990; “UAW, Ford . . ., 1990).

The only major change in 1993 agreements was the inclusion of language clarifying the assignments that could be given to employees under the GEN/SEI programs. The funding maximum remained at $586 million in the Ford-UAW agreement and $1.7 billion in the GM-UAW agreement (Agreements . . ., 1993; UAW-GM Report, 1993).

The UAW then turned its attention to Chrysler, the smallest of the Big Three. After discussing the issue in 1993, the 1996 UAW-Chrysler agreement included a Memorandum of Understanding on the Employment Security System (ESS) program which essentially mirrored the programs in the Ford-UAW and GM-UAW agreements. (Letters, Memoranda . . .1996 . . .; UAW Summary . . . , 1996). Funding levels over the life the agreements remained stable at GM and Ford; $1.7 billion at GM and $586 billion at Ford. (Agreement . . . , 1996; UAW Summary, . .. , 1996).

Further adjustments were made in the 1999 agreements, the first agreements to expire in four years. The major change was the creation of benchmark employment s (SEL at GM, GEN at Ford, BEL at DaimlerChrysler5) minimums which would be reduced be .333% each quarter so that at the end of the agreement, benchmark levels in the agreements would be at 95% of benchmark levels at the commencement of the agreements. Funding levels over the life of the agreement were increased to $2.107 billion at GM, $944 million at Ford, and $451 million at DaimlerChrysler. No adjustments were made in the job security provisions in the 2003 GM and Ford agreements; funding levels remained constant. The 2003 agreements will expire in September, 2007. (Agreement . . ., 1999; Agreements . . ., 1999; Agreement, 2003; Agreements . . ., 2003.)6

Overall, these provisions created a situation in which employment declines in the unionized sector of industry would be due primarily to attrition, e.g. retirements. There would be no employment reductions due to technological change. As the unionized workforce was aging, one would expect to see decreasing employment over time.
Effects of Bargaining Outcomes, 1985-2004

The foregoing discussion indicates that the bargaining outcomes would be expected to have effects on wages and employment. One would expect that the result would be a slowing of wage growth and a moderation of employment reductions, essentially making employment reductions due to attrition rather than to reductions in demand for the product.

First, with respect to wages, if the union truly “traded” wage increases for employment security, such a “trade” would be expected to be indicated by wage data. First, using wage data provided by the UAW research department, average annual September-to-September changes in negotiated wage increases, composed of negotiated increases and cost-of-living increases of assemblers at GM and Ford were examined.7 Two twenty-year periods were examined, the pre-employment security period 1961-80 and the employment security period 1985-2004. The period 1980-85 was excluded for two reasons. First, the 1980-83 was a period of transition and cyclical declines in employment in the industry, when the contract was being restructured. Second, the period 1983-84 was associated with the disaffiliation of all but one of the Canadian locals from the UAW and formation of the Canadian Auto Workers and a Chrysler “catch-up.”

For the period 1961-1980, annual negotiated wage increases, averaged 7.2% at the two companies. For the period 1985-2004, annual negotiated wage increases averaged only 3.6%, exactly half of the pre-employment security negotiated wage increases. This is consistent with expectations, indicating that the employment security guarantees were accompanied by wage moderation.

Block and Belman (2003) estimated that company payments into the fund for the employment security provisions added a maximum of 5.9% to the hourly wage paid by the companies, but that a more reasonable estimate was 4% to 4.5%. Based on this, it appears that the union “traded” approximately half of its wage increase for employment security guarantees and that GM and Ford “paid” for the bulk of the employment security guarantees by using reduced wages.

Second, using these same wage data, the difference between the annual percentage change in the negotiated assembler wage for GM and Ford combined from September to September and the annual inflation Rate, September to September was examined. This roughly corresponds to the improvement or decrement in the real wage, year-to-year and will provide a sense of the improvement in the economic circumstances of the auto workers as measured by disposable income. I take the mean of the difference for the 20-year period 1961-80 and compare it to the twenty-year period 1985-2004. The annual mean difference between wage increases and inflation for the twenty-year period 1961-80 was +.018, , which means, that on average, during this period, assemblers' wage increases exceeded the inflation rate by about.1.8 percentage points, suggesting a slight improvement in their standard of living each year during this period. On the other hand, for the twenty-year period 1985-2004, the mean deviation was .0062%, meaning that the real wages of UAW members in the GM and Ford barely kept up with the rate of inflation.

What effect have these provisions had on employment? Figure 1 uses motor vehicle manufacturing employment in Michigan as an indicator of employment trends in the unionized sector of the industry, because all motor vehicle manufacturing in Michigan is unionized. Figure1 presents data on motor vehicle manufacturing (MVM) employment in Michigan as a representation of the trends in the unionized sector the industry, as there are no nonunion plants in Michigan. MVM employment in motor vehicle manufacturing (MVM) in was basically stable during the 1990’s. By 2000, employment began to drop, as the workforce aged and employees retired. While there is no way of knowing what would have happened in the absence of these job security provisions, this is the predicted effect of the job security provisions.

Importantly, however, the employment security provisions, while protecting the employment of UAW-represented workers in the industry, have not prevented the U.S. auto industry from becoming less unionized as the non-U.S. firms have established nonunion manufacturing facilities in the U.S. Table 1 presents the data on motor vehicle manufacturing (MVM) employment in Michigan ,in the United States overall, in the United States outside of Michigan, and the percentage of MVM employment in Michigan from 1990 to 2004. MVM employment in Michigan declined by 28.15% during this 15-year period. While overall MVM employment in the U.S., including Michigan, declined by only 5.7%. Significantly, MVM employment outside Michigan increased by 12.2%. During this period, Michigan’s share of MVM employment dropped from 36.3% to 27.7%, a decline in share of 23.8%. These changes are due to the increasing size of the nonunion sector of the auto assembly industry associated with the non-U.S. manufacturers.


The period since 2004 has been one of severe financial crisis for the two U.S.-based auto manufacturers. GM reported a loss of US$10.6 billion in 2005 (Peters, 2006). Although Ford earned a US$2 billion profit in 2005, it’s North American operations lost US$1.6 billion (Maynard, 2006; :Ford Posts . . ., “ 2006).8 Also in 2005 Delphi, the firm created when GM “spun off” its parts operation, filed for bankruptcy. This was important to GM not only because Delphi is GM’s largest parts supplier, but also because GM agreed to permit former GM employees with Delphi to “flow back” to GM under certain circumstances (Agreement, . . ., 2006).

As a result, GM and the UAW and Ford and the UAW undertook rare mid-contract negotiations in 2005 and 2006. The negotiations focused on two areas, health care and employment levels. With respect to health care, a major concern of the companies has been “legacy costs,” the cost of paying for the health care benefits of retirees. GM has long claimed that these legacy costs have placed GM at substantial cost disadvantage vis-à-vis their non-U.S. based competitors with plants in the U.S. Because all these latter plants have opened since the mid-1980’s (Hill and Brahmst, 2003), the non-U.S.-based firms do not have retirees to whom health insurance must be provided. Reflecting this company concern, GM and Ford agreed with the UAW that that the health care benefits of active employees would not be reduced for the remainder of the current agreement, expiring in September, 2007, but the active employees would forego US$.17 per hour of future cost of living increases and a 3% wage increase due in September, 2006. Retirees whose GM or Ford pension was greater than US$8,000 per year and who were receiving benefits greater than US$33.33 per month per year of service would be required to pay US$10 per month for single coverage or US$21 per month for family coverage, along with deductibles and co-pays. Prior to this agreement, all health insurance for active employees and retirees was fully paid by the Company. (UAW Statement. . ., 2005; “UAW National Ford Council . . ., 2006)

With respect to employment levels, in March, 2006, GM and Delphi, its former parts division currently in bankruptcy, announced an early retirement program that would provide monetary incentives for employees who retired early and voluntarily left the Company. Employees were offered payments from US$35,000 to US$140,000 depending on length of service. Approximately 35,000 GM workers accepted the “buyouts,” reducing GM hourly employment by about 30%. Approximately 12,600 Delphi workers also accepted the buyouts. (“Delphi, GM . . ., 2006; “35,000 GM Employees . . . , 2006; Hawkins and Maher, 2006; Ellis and Roberson, 2006). The early retirement program falls within the framework created by the employment security provisions at GM. They assure that employment reductions are due primarily to attrition via retirement.

Ford followed a different path than GM. In January, 2006, Ford announced it would close up to 14 North American manufacturing plants and eliminate 25,000 to 30,000 jobs (Bajaj, 2006). The UAW has said it will vigorously enforce the employment security provisions in the 2003 collective bargaining agreements (“UAW Statement . . ., 2006).


Given the substantial restructuring that has occurred in the U.S. auto industry since 1993, it is almost impossible to determine the contribution of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to these changes.9 Burfisher, Robinson, and Thierfelder (2001) note that the prediction that NAFTA would have devastating effects on the U.S. automotive industry had not come to pass, at least by the late 1990’s. They observed that that employment overall in the U.S. automotive sector had grown in the period 1993-99, suggesting that NAFTA had not reduced employment in the automotive sector in the United States. They also note that GM, Ford, and Chrysler, invested US$39.1 billion in their U.S. facilities between 1993 and 1996, compared to US$3 billion in Mexico.

Schott (2006) observes that NAFTA created an integrated North American industry. Writing in 2006, however, he notes that automotive employment declined in the United States during the NAFTA period and that wage rates have remained stable, findings consistent with some detriment to employees in the U.S. auto industry.

These analyses are consistent with the analysis here. Overall U.S. auto assembly employment has grown outside the unionized sector during the NAFTA era that started in 1993, but it declined overall and in the unionized sector in the U.S. Schott’s statements on wages are consistent with the nature of wage-setting structures as they have evolved in the industry over the last twenty-five years, discussed above. As noted, wage rate changes in the unionized sector have tracked inflation as the UAW “traded” wage increases for employment security. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the real wages of employees in the nonunion firms have increased; it is likely that these firms already paid a local premium and the firms would have no reason to raise wages faster than the wages were increasing in the unionized sector to avoid unionization. Overall, then, there is little evidence to suggest that NAFTA has been a major cause of the structural changes in the U.S. auto industry.

Finally, and as Burfisher, Robinson, and Thierfelder note, U.S. firms have continued to invest in the U.S. While it is impossible to know with certainty the reason for this, such investment in the United States is the expected effect of the employment security provisions. The industry is more likely than otherwise to invest in the U.S. because the workers are a fixed cost.

Labor relations strategies and outcomes over the last thirty years in the unionized sector of the automobile assembly industry in the United States have changed as dramatically as the economic environment for the firms in that sector. During the first thirty years after World War II, GM, Ford, and Chrysler dominated the U.S. auto market. In the last thirty years, non-U.S. firms have continually increased their market share in the United States. During the last two years, this decline, in combination with high costs, have resulted in severe financial losses for Ford and GM, the two unionized purely domestic automakers.

Collective bargaining outcomes have reflecting the changing economic circumstances in the industry. During the prosperous immediate post-World War II period, the UAW continually negotiated wage and benefit increases, with little concern about employment. Starting in 1980, the focus of bargaining shifted to employment security, and the parties negotiated wage moderation. Over the last two years, responding to even greater financial distress in GM and Ford, the parties negotiated reductions in health benefits for retirees, paid for by wage concessions, and early retirement incentives at GM to reduce employment.

Collective bargaining in the unionized sector of the automobile assembly has responded flexibly to the transformation in the industry. Corporate decisions on product development will determine the future of the U.S.- based automotive firms. The UAW has an enormous stake in the success of these firms; their members depend on these firms for their employment, and these are among the best manufacturing jobs in the United States. Based on the past sixty years of labor relations, there is no reason to believe that the UAW will be an impediment to recovery.


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1 Due to space limitations, this paper will not address the substantial changes in plant level labor relations that have occurred over the past twenty-five years. For a discussion of plant level labor relations in the unionized sector of the U.S. auto assembly industry, see, for example Katz, 1987; Kochan, et al, 1997; Rubenstein and Kochan, 2001; and Block and Berg, 2003.

2 Much of the material in this section of the paper is adapted from Block and Belman (2003).

3 See, for example, “The Contribution . . .,” 2005).

4 Much of the material in this section of the paper is adapted from Block and Belman (2003).

5 Chrysler Corporation and Daimler Benz Corporation merged in 1998 to form DaimlerChrysler.

6 DaimlerChrysler does not provide copies of its agreements outside the corporation, but there is no reason to believe that the 2003 agreement with DaimlerChrysler did not mirror the GM and Ford agreements.

7 The September to September time frame was used because the annual wage increases are time to coincide with the anniversary of the effective date of collective agreements and this anniversary is in September. been effective. Chrysler/Daimler Chrysler was not included as Chrysler and the UAW negotiated a separate wage concessions as part of government-backed loan guarantees for Chrysler in 1981, and was on a separate negotiating schedule during much of this period.

8 The smaller Chrysler unit of DaimlerChrysler earned US$1.8 billion in 2005 (Maynard, 2006).

9 See also Office of Automotive Affairs, 1999.

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