This week, thousands of United Auto Workers will converge on Cobo Center in Detroit for the Special Convention on Collective Bargaining, an every-four-year event that lets members tell UAW leaders what the negotiating priorities should be during contract negotiations. This is where a lot of sand and a lot of lines start coming together in preparation for contract negotiations between the UAW and the Detroit 3 automakers, which will happen later this year.

Number one on the UAW agenda is the end of the two-tier wage system created in 2007 to help the automakers get through bankruptcy; veteran workers are paid the Tier 1 rate of around $29.00 per hour, new hires are paid the Tier 2 rate of between $15 and $20 and get about half the benefits of Tier 1. Tier 2 hiring has been an undoubted success for the automakers, allowing them to keep factories in the US and hire more workers. By agreement, it is capped at a certain percentage of each automaker's workforce, and while the union's ultimate position is to get rid of the dual-scale system entirely; one leader said Ford could easily afford the $335 million it would take to convert all its workers to Tier 1 out of its $6.9 billion in 2014 North American profit, and General Motors could do the same out of the $5 billion it is handing to investors through the (admittedly forced) share buyback. Other delegates say that at the very least they'd be happy with enforcement of the current caps in the new contract.

The automakers, conversely, would welcome expansion of the Tier 2 ranks. Including benefits, import automakers pay workers "in the high $40 range" per hour, according to an analyst, while Ford and GM pay about $59 in wages and benefits per hour. More Tier 2 workers on the rolls would let those two companies get labor cost parity with the competition. Fiat-Chrysler pays wages closer to the imports because of special exceptions in its UAW contract that allow unlimited Tier 2 hiring; those exceptions will end on September 14 and bring FCA into line with the other domestics, unless the new contract maintains them.

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne is opposed to the two-tier system, having called it "almost offensive." One analyst says the UAW might win a sizable pay raise for Tier 2 and a small increase for Tier 1, but the keystone issue will be how the hiring matrix can help the automakers keep overall wages in line with the imports. Another analyst said that soon it won't even matter; in eight years (two contract cycles) most Tier 1 workers will have either retired or be able to retire, and the lower-cost Tier 2 - even after raises - will be all that's left. We think there'll be a bruising battle to find the middle ground come negotiating time.

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