Detroit Free Press
General Motors CEO Mary Barra described it as “an incredibly interesting time” for the automaker ahead of contract negotiations with the UAW in the fall of 2023 because of two unknowns: the future of union leadership and the health of the U.S. economy.
But Barra, who spoke to the media Thursday at an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit, said she has an idea of the top issues GM and the union will face, noting that an uncertain economy could influence terms of a new contract.
“What do people want? They want job security and they want to be recognized … and appropriately compensated,” Barra said. “But it will be interesting, given inflation and the (uncertain) economic backdrop. You tell me what the economic situation will be next year? I don’t think anybody knows.”
Barra noted that the UAW’s election of officers is not “completed yet, so that will be important to watch” so that the GM bargaining team knows who it will sit down with next year. Last week, UAW members had their first direction election of top leaders. There was no clear winner for the top job, leading to a run-off to determine whether current President Ray Curry will be unseated. Many reform candidates did win spots. Those are candidates who raised concerns about the union’s long-running corruption scandal and a perceived unwillingness by its leaders to fight hard enough against tiered wages and other concessions. They now will have a seat at the decision-making table in the years to come.
Meanwhile, hourly workers at GM’s joint-venture battery cell plant — Ultium Cells LLC in Lordstown, Ohio —started voting Thursday on whether to have union representation or not at that facility. The results to that vote are expected late Friday or over the weekend. When asked how Barra felt about the Ultium Cells plant possibly unionizing, she said she supports the union and noted that her father, Ray Makela, was a tool-and-die maker at GM’s former Pontiac plant and she started at the factory there at age 18 as a co-op student at Kettering University.
“We’re a company that’s worked with unions around the world for many years, so we welcome Ultium having union representation,” Barra said. “We can work together on things like health and safety, quality training. I always say my teeth are straight because my dad worked for General Motors.”
Barra said if Ultium Cells workers approve a union she would want a contract with them “as soon as possible.” But, she said, it is not a “foregone conclusion that if you go union, you’re more expansive.”
“We’ve got to be competitive. We don’t have a right to exist,” Barra said. “We’ve got to be competitive to have a company and go forward. We have that conversation with employees on the floor and they get it.”
As for the concerns about the economy going forward, Barra said there are so many factors in the world that could swing the economy either way that it is hard to predict where it will end up. She listed challenges in the global supply chain, inflation and the war in Ukraine, all lingering and all potentially impacting the economy.
“As of last week, we’re still seeing strong demand for our vehicles, but we’re mindful,” Barra said. “We see the steady rise of MSRPs (manufacturer suggested retail prices) coming down a little, but well ahead of where we were pre-COVID. Incentives remain low.”
She added: “We’re setting up our budget to be very conservative on a cost perspective, but still allowing for an upside. We’re going to go in very conservatively next year, but not so conservative that we can’t take advantage of opportunities when they’re presented.”
As for GM’s salaried workforce, Barra said many are coming back to newly renovated offices at the GM Global Technical Center in Warren three days a week, starting Jan. 30. She said the employees she’s seen return so far have told her, “I love this.”
“It’s an energy and a vibe. A culture needs to be nurished, and you can’t do that if you’re not in person,” Barra said. “There are a whole bunch of other GM workers who went back to work shortly after COVID already. We think we can do better” in person, noting there are 30,000 parts in a vehicle and “you can’t do that on Zoom.”
This content was originally published here.