For UAW members, two-tier wage issue is personal

Tue Jun 2, 2015 7:48am EDT
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By Bernie Woodall

KANSAS CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - For United Auto Workers union members Jermaine and Akema Austin, a two-tier wage system at General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote) is not just business, it's personal.

GM has two classes of UAW workers – long-time "first-tier" employees, who earn about $28 an hour, and "second-tier" workers hired after 2007, who earn about $16 to $19 an hour. The Austins are on opposite sides of the divide.

Detroit automakers, which pushed for and won the two-tier system in negotiations with the union, say the freedom to hire workers at lower wages has helped them recover from near-death in the recession and add thousands of U.S. jobs in recent years.

But as the Detroit companies and the UAW head into contract talks this summer, the divisions the two-tier wage system have created among workers – and even within families – are among the most contentious issues on the table.

When Jermaine Austin, a first-tier worker at GM's car plant in Kansas City, Kansas, put in for a transfer to GM's factory in Arlington, Texas, where the company builds large sport utility vehicles, he assumed his wife, a "second-tier" Kansas City worker would have no trouble moving, too.

But when Jermaine Austin's transfer came through, the family learned that his wife's status makes transferring harder for her. As a second-tier worker, she has no preferential standing in applying for a job at the Texas plant, and if she were offered a job, she would lose the seniority she has built in Kansas City, resulting in a cut to her $16.66 per hour pay.

The family decided that Jermaine Austin should take the job, which is nearer to relatives, and hope that his wife and their five daughters, ages 2 to 17, would be able to follow somehow.

    Both husband and wife say they love making cars for GM. "The company has done our family well," Akema Austin said. But they find living apart difficult.   Continued...

Auto worker Jermaine Austin (L), who works for General Motors, kisses his two-year-old daughter Jayla held by Armoni,15, as he bids farewell to his family as he leaves to a new job in Texas for an unknown duration, in Kansas City, Missouri May 16, 2015.  REUTERS/Ed Zurga