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Published: Saturday, 11/5/2005

Powertrain workers vote on benefit changes

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Toledo Powertrain Plant worker Tammy Jensen warily voted for a pact that will use about $1 an hour in pay increases starting next year to bolster health-care funding for General Motors Corp. retirees, hoping money will be there when it's her turn to retire, yet wondering if more unpleasantries are to come.

"If what they say is true, we really didn't give up that much," said the Temperance woman, who has worked at the Alexis Road transmission factory for 20 years. "If they're going to keep it so that I have health care when I retire, then that's a good thing."

Meanwhile, her father, James E. Kraus, faces paying monthly health-care premiums for the first time since he retired from the Toledo factory four years ago. Yesterday, he was upset not only because retirees aren't allowed to vote on the pact, but because there may be changes in benefits he was promised when agreeing to retire.

"That's what they should have been forever," said the Coldwater, Mich., man, who started working at GM Powertrain a few days after it opened in 1956 and toiled more than 44 years there.

Late Thursday through yesterday, Toledo Powertrain workers voted on a tentative agreement between the United Auto Workers and GM that would alter medical insurance payments if approved by a majority of union members nationwide and a federal court. The struggling automaker has about 5,800 union workers and 7,000 retirees at Powertrain plants in Toledo and Defiance. The Defiance workers vote Wednesday.

If the agreement is approved by GM workers nationally - voting is to conclude by Thursday - retirees will pay up to $752 annually for families and $370 for individuals for health care. Excluded from the agreement are 74,000 low-income retirees whose GM pension is $8,000 a year or less.

Hourly workers will contribute $1 an hour in future pay increases for a new fund to help pay for retirees' health-care coverage, and the automaker will put $3 billion in over six years. Both hourly workers and retirees also will pay slightly more for prescriptions.

At Defiance Powertrain, there are many concerns about the proposal, but most workers and retirees understand something has to be done, said Dwight Chatham, president of Local 211.

Some workers at Toledo Powertrain opposed the agreement.

Fred Schmidt of Fayette, a 36-year plant veteran, said he voted against it. GM should save money by cutting its salaried work force, he said. "I think management needs to start trimming the fat first," he said.

Local plant worker Ted Warzecha said he would vote against the agreement because he didn't like it. "I don't think that's right," he said.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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