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Voting Continues On United Auto Workers' Tentative Deal With GM

NOEL KING, HOST:

Workers at General Motors' biggest factories vote today and tomorrow on a tentative contract. If it's ratified, it would end the longest strike at GM since 1970. But the union has agreed to let GM close a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and that move could doom the deal. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton has the story.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: It rained all day Monday in Romulus, Mich. Strikers at GM's Powertrain plant got a fire going in a big barrel to warm their hands. Steven Boyle walked the picket line undeterred, water streaming off his orange poncho.

STEVEN BOYLE: My grandfather was a sit-down striker. If he was capable of locking himself inside a building for 45 days, bring on negative 20 degrees, and I'd still be out here. It wouldn't make a difference to me.

SAMILTON: Some smaller plants had voted that day to approve a tentative four-year contract with General Motors by a big margin. Striker Kenny Bowles was predicting ratification.

KENNY BOWLES: Yeah, we're going to hang in there, but I think it's a wrap. I think it's going to go through. It's not what everybody wanted, but it's not that bad.

SAMILTON: But this was before the vote at GM's Spring Hill, Tenn., plant yesterday, which has a much larger workforce.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: I think the vote at Spring Hill, a narrow rejection of the agreement, is a cause of concern for things to come.

SAMILTON: That's Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

SHAIKEN: This is a local union that received considerable investment in the new agreement, a billion dollars for new SUVs. But clearly, what was upsetting to many members is the fact that Lordstown will remain closed.

SAMILTON: Lordstown being one of five facilities that GM is closing or has already closed. Most of Lordstown's workers are now at plants in Flint, Mich., Fort Wayne, Ind., or Arlington, Texas. The tentative deal shuts the door on any hope of them moving back home to Ohio. And Shaiken says the closure sent a worrisome message to a lot of other union members.

SHAIKEN: That Lordstown is a preview of what could happen to other plants.

SAMILTON: But there are still some compelling reasons why GM's striking workers might vote to ratify; the most basic is the need to get back to work and a regular paycheck. The tentative deal also provides new benefits for GM's temporary workers and for others. Union officials are visiting each GM facility to hold rollout meetings to explain the contract. Kristin Dziczek is an analyst with the Center for Automotive Research. She says the message isn't always well-received.

KRISTIN DZICZEK: Yeah, it can get rowdy and has gotten rowdy. Police were called to the local in Spring Hill from some of the protesters that were disrupting the proceedings.

SAMILTON: And in-person protesting isn't the only peer pressure on workers as they try to make up their minds. Paul Eisenstein is editor of TheDetroitBureau.com and has covered every contract ratification since 1979. He says social media is a new factor in these ratification votes, with lots of vote-no posts all over Facebook.

PAUL EISENSTEIN: And we know that naysayers tend to be more outspoken online than they may be in person. It's a great place to get a very strong opinion out to a broad audience.

SAMILTON: Nicole Henning works at GM's plant in Lansing, Mich., where voting won't wrap up until Friday. She says there is really no way at this point to make any predictions.

NICOLE HENNING: Different parts of the contract are appealing to different people. So it's kind of hard to get a sense of how everybody feels about the contract.

SAMILTON: A no vote would mean even more financial hardships for workers and big financial costs for GM, and it could potentially send union negotiators back to the table with a nearly impossible demand - that GM reopen the orphaned Lordstown plant.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUSHY'S "ENVELOPES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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