DETROIT — This past spring, local UAW leaders from across the country gathered in Detroit to meet the UAW’s top negotiators at the Renaissance Center.
One leader noticed a 10-year-old Chevrolet Malibu sedan roll up to the entrance, driven by a rather unassuming 62-year-old man. The car had placards taped to the windows: “GM: We invested in you. Now it’s your turn to invest in US!”
“I thought that was really cool,” said the leader. “He’s taking it to the streets!”
The man who got out of the car was Terry Dittes, the UAW’s top negotiator in the current talks with General Motors.
“He seems to be woven from a different cloth than some of the other union leaders,” said this UAW local leader. He has since met Dittes, pronounced Dit-us, several times. He asked to not be named because he’s not authorized to speak for the union.
“He gave me a bro hug,” said the leader. “Others will show up with an entourage, they’re being driven in a Cadillac. Not Terry. He was driving himself.”
The UAW and GM are in the fourth week of a nationwide strike.
That is starting to take a heavy toll on workers, who make $250 a week in strike wages, GM and the broader economy. East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group estimates through the first three weeks of the nationwide strike, losses include $660 million in profits for GM, direct wage losses for all employees in excess of $412 million, $155 million in lost federal income and payroll tax revenue, and $9.1 million in lost Michigan income tax revenue.
The group’s new analysis Tuesday estimated that as many as 100,000 workers beyond the striking UAW members have also been either laid off or face lost pay from the nationwide strike against GM.
But the National Automobile Dealers Association’s chairman said in Detroit that the strike has not yet impacted sales at his GM stores, as inventory has held up. NADA data show GM inventory remains well above industry average.
Against that backdrop, Dittes and his GM counterpart, Scott Sandefur, are expected to resume negotiations Wednesday morning at the RenCen despite some turbulence over the weekend that prompted Dittes to tell members the talks had “taken a turn for the worse.”
Then Tuesday evening, Dittes issued an email to members contending that GM has not shown a “solid commitment” to building vehicles in the United States. The UAW considers that key to job security, and Dittes said it is one of the union’s top agenda items with “little progress to report.”
But Tuesday, people close to the talks said, both sides were quiet and hunkered down. GM awaited a union response to a proposal it sent the UAW on Monday. Progress seemed improved compared to the weekend, but work remained to reach a tentative agreement, one person said.
Meanwhile, some 46,000 GM union members remain on the picket lines, living on strike pay and pinning their trust on that guy behind the wheel of an old Malibu.
Dittes, who joined the UAW in 1978, lives with his wife, Gail, in Philadelphia. They have six children and six grandchildren, the UAW’s website says.
But his East Coast roots don’t fool those who know him, who say he’s a Detroit car guy.
“He’s ready for a fight,” said the local leader. “He came from the factory floor of a GM plant and worked his way up. He’s very down to earth and a regular guy.”
Dittes has held a number of high-level UAW positions over the years, but his roots began on the line at the Fisher Body Plant in Trenton, N.J., according to the UAW’s website. Those who meet him say he exudes the humility from his days on the floor.
“It was kind of like talking to somebody you work with on the line, just a regular member,” said Tim O’Hara, president of Local 1112 in Lordstown, Ohio, on his first meeting with Dittes.
O’Hara met Dittes at the UAW’s Solidarity House in Detroit last November, just days after GM said it would not assign a new vehicle to Lordstown Assembly.
Lordstown built its last Chevrolet Cruze compact car in March, then the plant idled.
GM’s initial proposal to the UAW offered to build a battery cell manufacturing facility near the assembly plant. GM is also in talks to sell the existing facility to Lordstown Motors, an entity backed by electric-truck maker Workhorse.
But the UAW wants a new GM product allocated to Lordstown. O’Hara has faith in Dittes to get that job done.
“We started off as line workers, moved up and got elected to office,” said O’Hara. “So I liked him and I was confident that the fate of Lordstown was going to be in his hands during negotiations.”
O’Hara was in Detroit on Sept. 15 as part of the UAW’s National Council. He was one of some 700 other leaders who voted unanimously to strike GM after Dittes and the bargaining committee rejected GM’s initial contract offer. GM made the offer two hours before the UAW’s 2015 contract expired at midnight Sept. 14.
“When we took the strike vote, he called General Motors ‘one of the most arrogant companies he’s ever dealt with,’ “ said O’Hara. “That struck a chord with me because we’ve known that for a while here at Lordstown. They basically only followed the contract when it benefited them. So I really liked it when he called GM arrogant.”
Dittes was unafraid of saying how he felt to GM’s face.
In March, when CEO Mary Barra went to GM’s Orion Assembly Plant north of Detroit to announce the company would invest $300 million to build a new electric car there, Dittes took the stage. He thanked GM for its new investment at Orion, but was quick to note, “There’s hardship among four of our other locations and we’ve made it clear we disagree with that.”
Dittes told reporters the UAW would not forget the four plants in negotiations. The four plants that GM “unallocated” were Lordstown, Detroit-Hamtramck, and transmission plants in Warren and Baltimore. Detroit-Hamtramck continues to run at reduced output and currently is scheduled to close in January.
Dittes’ road to the main bargaining room at the Renaissance Center came amid UAW upheaval.
In January 2018, the UAW Executive Board tapped Dittes to oversee the Fiat Chrysler Automobile department. He replaced Norwood Jewell, who resigned over his involvement in a federal corruption probe involving millions of dollars from a joint training center allegedly embezzled by both union and company officials. Jewell has since been charged and pleaded guilty.
At the time, Dittes had been regional director on the East Coast.
Then in June 2018, the UAW’s new President Gary Jones named Dittes as the lead negotiator for GM, moving longtime GM Department Vice President Cindy Estrada, over to handle FCA negotiations. Estrada represented the union in 2015 talks with GM.
Meanwhile, Joe Ashton, a former UAW vice president, had quit the GM board in December 2017 and hired a high-profile criminal defense attorney amid the FBI probe.
Dittes is nothing like Ashton, said a local union leader who has met both men.
“Joe was like a New York gangster. He wore $1,000 shoes and expensive suits. He had an entourage. How do you relate to working people?” said the local union leader. “Terry’s a working guy. He dresses like a working guy. Drives his own car.”
According to Union Facts.com, in 2015, Dittes’ salary was $133,665. At that time, Dennis Williams was the UAW president making $159,059.
Don’t let the deferential Dittes fool you, say other union local leaders.
Some say he’s been looking for a fight since GM’s November announcement. And when many UAW local leaders voted that Ford Motor Co. be the UAW’s target company, it was Dittes who pushed for it to be GM.
“We wanted it to be Ford because that’s where we thought we’d get the job done,” said another UAW local officer who asked to not be named.
In collective bargaining, the UAW selects a target company to negotiate a contract with first and then uses that as a template with the other two Detroit automakers.
“But Terry said it was his turn,” said the local officer. “He wanted a fight. He said he’s the right man at the right time.”
This leader worries that Dittes might not bend enough to achieve a deal.
“With bargaining you have to give something,” said this leader. “The feeling is that Terry feels if we stay out long enough we’ll get what we want.”
Across the table from Dittes, GM’s top bargainer is veteran negotiator Scott Sandefur. Sandefur, 57, joined GM in 1986 and worked on previous UAW negotiations. GM said Sandefur is a “strong advocate for employee engagement and has worked with various union partners to promote collaboration.”
Those working directly with Dittes said he is flexible, but he is also committed to listening to the concerns of union members.
“They’re the ones who have to live with it,” said a UAW leader familiar with Dittes and this year’s talks.
Dittes is intense and focused, not willing to tip his hand during negotiations.
“Terry’s fighting for an agreement that there’s no need to explain it to the members,” said the leader. “They either like it or they won’t.”
And despite the UAW’s top turmoil, most of the strikers on the line stand behind the middle management bargainers and Dittes, they say.
“I have no qualms about it, knowing his experience as a negotiator,” said O’Hara. “He’s fighting for the same things that the UAW has been fighting for since the 1930s, which is a fair and equitable contract. He understands the seriousness of these negotiations, not just for the next four years, but into the future.”
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