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Striking GM workers heartened by tentative deal, but want details

On a dreary, rainy Wednesday, Darin Balcer was encouraged to learn that the United Auto Workers had reached a tentative agreement with General Motors that could end a monthlong strike at the automaker.

"I'm excited," said Balcer, one of the striking UAW members outside GM's Town of Tonawanda engine plant. "We've been out here a long time."

But like others walking the picket line in the pouring rain, Balcer wanted to see the details of the agreement before passing judgment.

"We hope they bring back a fair deal for us," he said. "They know what our issues are."

On Thursday, the UAW GM National Council, consisting of local union officials from around the country will meet in Detroit. They will review the agreement and decide whether to recommend it to members for ratification.

The tentative agreement includes $9 billion in investment in U.S. plants, signing bonuses exceeding the $8,000 workers got four years ago, and annual pay raises and lump-sum bonuses over the life of the contract, according to Bloomberg News.

The strike continued Wednesday, but the National Council on Thursday could decide to call off the walkout ahead of the ratification vote. Or the council could direct UAW members at GM to keep striking until a ratification vote is held.

The decision will affect about 3,000 workers from the GM Tonawanda plant and a GM components plant in Lockport and how soon they will be able to start collecting regular paychecks again. They are among about 46,000 UAW members who went on strike Sept. 16.

As the strike entered its second month, the costs of the work stoppage were rising for both sides. Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimated the strike cost GM about $2 billion in earnings, while striking workers may have lost $2,000 in profit sharing payments and as much as $4,000 in take-home pay.

Reaction in Tonawanda

Fred Duchow, another UAW member at the Tonawanda plant, viewed the news of a settlement with a mixture of hope and caution.

"It's a little exciting, but you don't know what it's going to be," he said. "I want the highlights and the lowlights."

Duchow said he wants to see temporary workers at GM made permanent after 90 days, rather than working as temps for possibly years and receiving less benefits. And he wants to see higher wages in the new contract, instead of lump-sum payments.

"We're going to be working a lot of overtime when we go back, so it would be worth it to get a higher pay grade," Duchow said.

J.R. Baker, president of UAW Local 774 at the Tonawanda plant, said that when news broke of a tentative agreement, "everybody was a little bit relieved."

"But they know this is just the first step in a long endeavor," Baker said. "We have to look at it. We have to have meetings on it. We have to see if it addresses everyone's needs, and then we have to vote on it as a local. But I'm confident in our leadership that they did an outstanding job, and I can't wait to get to see what it's all about."

J.R. Baker, president of UAW Local 774. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Along with traditional issues such as wages and health care, the UAW has pressed for giving temporary workers a clear path to permanent employment and allocating new products to U.S. factories to protect jobs.

Balcer said he hopes to see a deal that gives workers "our fair share of the wages and the profits" after the union agreed to concessions to help GM survive the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

"We gave concessions to General Motors to keep our jobs," he said. "This is the first year in 10, 12, 15 years we've asked for something back. They're making billions of dollars. We're not asking for much."

Baker said he looks forward to learning the specifics. "I just hope we hear that everything we fought and stood here for, that we get what we've got coming to us," he said. "It's a long time coming."

In announcing the tentative deal, the UAW said the agreement "represents major gains for UAW workers."

"The No. 1 priority of the national negotiation team has been to secure a strong and fair contract that our members deserve," said UAW Vice President Terry Dittes. "Out of respect for our members, we will refrain from commenting on the details until the UAW GM leaders gather together and receive all details."

GM also confirmed the news of a tentative deal. "Additional details will be provided at the appropriate time," the automaker said.

Striking UAW workers have had to give up their regular GM paychecks for strike benefit checks from the UAW. The amount was just raised to $275 a week from $250 per week.

UAW members were advised some time ago to start saving up in case of a strike, Baker said.

"You can't go into a fight without knowing there's going to be some sacrifice," he said. "And we were ready. We were prepared. And we didn't just start now, we started six months ago. Everybody knew what was going on."

The Center for Automotive Research estimates the strike has cost GM $450 million a week, and the UAW strike fund about $12 million a week.

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