Negotiations on a new contract between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three automakers have begun. Most of the speculation in the news media has focused on the so-called “dire straits” that the auto companies are facing.

The last two years have not been good in the U.S. auto industry, with both market-share and profits dropping. The mainline media have harped on the weakness of the economy as a reason to expect the union to be willing to take some form of concessions. The “conventional wisdom” is that the companies must bring health care and pension costs down to improve their standing on Wall Street. This translates to forcing workers to pay part of their health insurance costs and to accept reductions in pensions.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and other union leaders have steadfastly refused to budge on these issues, pledging not to let the problem of soaring health care costs be solved on the backs of the union workers. However, there is also talk of allowing the companies out of the no-plant-closing provisions negotiated in the last contract.

All this hype in the media about the contract is having an effect among some workers. Some talk about this being a contract where we simply hold our own and wait for a better economy. Some see the closing of a couple of the plants that work only one shift as inevitable. Everyone realizes the huge impact of the foreign transplants and sees the fact that they are almost all non-union as a real problem.

But a lot of workers also know that for eight years or more there were big profits for the Big Three. The companies made billions of dollars in profits and paid hundreds of millions in bonuses to upper management.

One of the big improvements for the workers that came two contracts ago was the reinstatement of the annual 3 percent pay increase, which replaced the lump sum payments that had been a leftover from the early 80s. These wage increases are just as important as improvements in benefits. This is especially true for younger workers with families who have less seniority and who oftentimes are just getting started economically. Increased wages mean an improved quality of life. Despite the drop in the economy, the Big Three still bring enough resources to the table to retain the 3 percent annual wage increase. Now is not the time to go cheap on the very same people who were the foundation for the financial success of the 1990s.

– a Detroit Ford worker