Competing Automakers Sing Same Labor Tune...

By Bob Mizke | September 28, 2010

Their television commercials dominate the airwaves. The brightest lights on Main Street in Anytown, USA, come from their dealerships. Nowhere is competition for the consumer dollar fiercer than in the automotive industry. Yet, while the world of automobile sales can be a toe to toe slugfest, it's not at all unusual to see automakers singing from the same hymnal when it comes to the construction or platform changes of their massive plants. National Maintenance Agreements or NMAs, a labor-management system in which 14 different building trades craftsmen perform the work under one set of rules, is the arrangement of choice for America's Big Three.

Originally designed primarily as an agreement to easily facilitate the ongoing maintenance needs of large industrial installations, NMAs are gaining more and more traction as the most user-friendly solution between owner, contractor and work force in the construction arena as well. "At the core of any National Maintenance Agreement is the practice of 'tripartite' where all three parties involved in the work get a seat at the table," said Steve Lindauer, impartial secretary of the National Maintenance Agreements Policy Committee. Under the NMA, issues involving work rules, safety, scheduling, crew size, overtime, and more are spelled out before the work begins, and apply to all craftsmen, regardless of trade. "It sounds simple, but communication is the key," Lindauer added. "The result is a streamlined, money-saving operation for the owner."

The automakers, their contractors and labor relying on the NMA for quality jobs is widespread in Michigan with an ever-increasing number of new projects being added.

Chrysler has recently ramped up the NMA for a new engine facility in Trenton, and a new axle facility in Marysville. Ford is using the agreement to modernize its Van Dyke transmission plant, and GM is using the NMA for its $300-million investment at its Jefferson North operation.

"I think anyone who doesn't use the NMA is behind the times," said Mike Haupricht, executive secretary/business manager of the Northwest Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council, the group involved with General Motors Powertrain project. Haupricht touts the Code of Excellence that has brought added value to GM and facilitated through tripartite cooperation under the NMA.

When it comes to the use an NMA, there is no decision as far as Carl Gabbard, construction director of GM, is concerned. "It's not a matter of are we or aren't we going to use the NMA. We just use it. It's part of our business model," Gabbard noted. There are other labor-management choices available to the construction user, but according to Gabbard, none that measures up. "There's the President's Agreement and others. There's PLAs (Project Labor Agreements), but they're full of 'ifs,' 'whys,' and 'whereas's.' With the NMA everything's in place," Gabbard believes.

Lindauer says the agreement benefits workers as well. "It creates jobs. Labor knows they'll be getting a good wage, and having the support of owners and contractors is a big plus."

With fans in both labor and management camps, why are National Maintenance Agreements not used more universally? It's a lack of familiarity with the NMA that veterans of the agreement cite as the biggest reason. "Some think the NMA runs contrary to a local Collective Bargaining Agreement, but nowadays, at least around here, most of our CBAs follow the NMA," said Haupricht.

NMA chief Lindauer says misinformation is at the root of the problem. "The perception in other parts of the country is that you may work for less, or that you are giving things up, but that's not true. In many cases, users of the agreement actually gain more man hours and better working conditions under an NMA than you could as a craft out there on your own."

If owners familiar with the National Maintenance Agreement prefer it as a way of doing business, that's all the opening many labor leaders require to get a foot in the door. Provide quality work, and everything takes care of itself says GM's Gabbard.

"Even if the building trades are more expensive than the alternative, where they more than make up the difference is time. If I'm not open, I'm not making any money. If you can save us a day, or two days or more, that's worth millions and millions of dollars to us each day. Building trades workers get the job done sooner. That's where the value is. That's the NMA advantage," Gabbard said.