GM, Ford, Chrysler and Boeing Unions Score Big Bonuses and Lift Economy

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"Over the past decade," he said, "workers in perhaps a third of contract negotiations did get bonuses, but of a different type: 'signing' bonuses of anywhere from $500 to $7,000 if they ratified collective agreements with wage freezes or cuts."

Profit-sharing bonuses of the kind being paid now by the Big Three are considerably rarer.

"These [profit-sharing bonuses] came about because the UAW was in a unique position, a major union dealing with huge but declining employers who were undergoing managed bankruptcy under the guidance of the White House," Chaison said.

"After they became smaller and restructured, they returned to profitability. Rather than restore wages, they agreed with the UAW to a profit-sharing arrangement, under which workers receive bonus payments based on the profitability of the company," instead of their traditional 3 percent a year wage increase.

For most union workers in the United States, Chaison says, a traditional percentage increase is still the norm. The change at GM, Ford and Chrysler is significant because, "the auto makers and the UAW are the big-timers, when it comes to negotiation. They're the trend-setters."

"What happens in autos usually gets copied in heavy manufacturing in general," he said, "and then in smaller manufacturing."

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