UAW new top bargainer's life story shaped his negotiation style and agenda
A quick glance around Mike Booth's office on the top floor of Solidarity House in Detroit is striking because it is so understated.
There are no big flower arrangements or mahogany furniture. Fancy artwork or photos do not crowd his desk or wall space. He has occupied the office since December, when UAW members elected him as vice president and he was assigned the General Motors Department. Yet, other than his desk, there are only a few scattershot cabinets with various binders on them and a refrigerator in a back cubbyhole. A black couch and two matching chairs frame a coffee table where Booth's bible sits: The UAW Constitution.
In some ways, the spacious, but modest office reflects the man tasked with representing some 45,000 hourly workers at GM's U.S. plants when negotiations for a new four-year contract start in mid-July. The contract is crucial to secure union jobs as GM transitions to all electric vehicles by 2035.
Booth, 58, worked on the factory floor as an electrician for nearly 30 years so he is plain-spoken and forthright. He preaches transparency and doesn't shy away from bringing up the UAW corruption scandal that started in 2014 and resulted in 16 convictions of former union leaders. It led to federal oversight and the first-ever membership direct election, the election that put Booth — a reform candidate — in office.
"Those dirty players are gone," Booth told the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, as he spoke of those who were part of the scandal. "We need the membership to trust us as much as we need to be honest and transparent with the membership.”
So far, those who have met him are impressed. GM Flint Assembly plant UAW Local 598 Shop Chairman Eric Welter spent a week recently with Booth. Welter is on the top committee that will help Booth in negotiations. Welter said union members at GM are lucky to have Booth.
"I think he’s a very genuine guy with a lot of integrity," Welter told the Free Press. "I’m looking forward to working with him."
Across the table from Booth will be GM's Vice President of Labor Relations Mike Perez. He has had several meetings with Booth, too. Despite being tight-lipped with the media about any bargaining issues, Perez, when asked by the Free Press, said of Booth: "He’s a man of integrity and very passionate about the people he represents."
An early lesson on solidarity from the farm
The integrity others sense in him hails from humble roots. Booth grew up on a 47-acre farm in Bad Axe, located about 15 miles south of Port Austin in Michigan's Thumb. Dad was a farmer and a butcher. Mom was a respiratory therapist in a small regional hospital, Booth said.
Booth played Little League baseball as a boy and worked on the farm that grew corn, soy beans, navy beans and tomatoes.
"I grew up in a town where everybody knew each other and everybody helped each other out," Booth said. "I still carry those values."
But it was one day in 1979, when Booth learned a powerful lesson about the strength of solidarity.
Booth, then 14, went to a farm auction with his dad and older brother that day. A 1941 Dodge Stake truck came up on the auction block and an excited young Booth asked his dad whether he could bid on it, he recalled. His dad asked him how much money he had and Booth said, "$10." His father gave him permission. But when the bid reached $12.50, a disappointed Booth thought he was out.
But his older brother nudged Booth. He told Booth that he had extra money and to keep bidding. So Booth won the truck for $15. It was an early lesson on the power of uniting to reach a goal, which is the foundation of a union and gets to the heart of who Booth is today.
"I may have a title, but this is a department that is going to be doing the negotiating with the top negotiators, so we’re going to assist them. There’s still going to be my feelings, but I am going to always refer back to that constitution right there," Booth said, pointing at the small red book on the table. "Who’s the highest authority in the UAW? The membership. It’s about the people on the shop floor.”
Mom and Dad's influence to this day
Booth's mother is still influential in his life, living three houses down from the house Booth shares now with his wife, Terri, in Clyde Township, west of Port Huron. Booth, who has two sons and seven grandchildren, said his father died 10 years ago. But it was Dad who encouraged him to get off the farm and get an education.
"Was it hard (working on a farm)? Look at what I do now. I'm not a farmer," Booth said. "Every parent wants something better for their kids, just like we want a better contract for the employees who haven't even come in yet. We want future generations to have it better than we have."
Booth left Bad Axe in 1983 to attend Michigan State University's Electrical Technology Program. He is a state of Michigan Master Electrician. He has been a union member for nearly 33 years, starting when he was hired at auto parts maker Kelsey-Hayes in Romulus in 1991. A year later, he joined then-Chrysler's Detroit Axle, transferring to Marysville Axle in 2011 and then on to Stellantis' Sterling Heights Assembly in 2020. At all three Chrysler locations, he was a skilled trades electrician and involved in the union as a representative.
While at Marysville Axle, in 2013 and 2014, Booth served as chief steward of UAW Local 961, which represented the hourly workers at the plant. In 2017 and 2020, he was elected president of the local. He jumped at the opportunity to get into union leadership because he said, “As a person, you always want to help out that next person."
The help he could offer reached beyond contractual issues into the courtrooms when some union members found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
"You go to the courtroom and say, ‘Here’s a good a person, we don’t want to see this person lose their job. I can’t speak about what happened that day or that night,' " Booth said. "A mistake doesn’t mean you need to crush the person. The person needs to be able to continue on, earn a good living and learn from that mistake and move on.”
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It's not personal, until it is
At Marysville Axle, Booth had his first taste of bargaining with then plant-owner, Auburn Hills-based Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. After FCA became Stellantis in 2021, the automaker turned the plant over to multibillion-dollar German-based auto supplier ZF.
The plant had a complicated history including transferring hundreds of hourly workers to other plants as it was idled. It endured a one-week strike in 2021. Booth, who is measured when he speaks, prefers to reference data rather than evoke drama during negotiations. But there was one time, when he was president of UAW Local 961, and Stellantis was closing Marysville Axle that he was hit in the gut with emotion.
"I’m gonna try and not get emotional about this just thinking about it, but we actually had — with a plant closing — we had two people commit suicide. That’s where it gets personal," Booth said. "They’re more than just members, they’re family. You see them every day. You argue just like real brothers and sisters. You understand that he or she has a different opinion than you, but it’s still family."
He noted that some similar consequences occurred when GM shut down its Lordstown Assembly plant in northeast Ohio in 2019. That is why keeping plants open is top of mind for Booth. But his bargaining style to do so will not be brash.
“Are you going to see me thumping tables and turning over tables? Absolutely not," Booth said. "I’ve never gotten to that point and I hope I don’t. But in the overall picture, these are facts we’re dealing with so when you go into a conversation with emotion, emotion can drag you down. So reviewing facts and getting everything out on the table, that’s where you’re going to excel.”
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A new Jobs Bank?
Booth has been visiting GM plants to talk to the folks on the floors and hear what they want in a new contract.
When he is not doing that, he is at his office in Solidarity House, which overlooks the Detroit River with a view of GM's world headquarters inside the Renaissance Center. It's a 55-minute drive from his home to Detroit. But he doesn't mind because it gives him time to think, he said.
He has a lot to think about. In a one-on-one interview with the Detroit Free Press on May 10, Booth outlined the issues he plans to tackle in talks with GM this summer: higher wages, job security and health and safety.
He even wants to reintroduce the controversial Jobs Bank, which had guaranteed workers would get most of their wages even if work was not available. The union had to give up the Jobs Bank in 2009 amid the Great Recession and GM's bankruptcy. This time, Booth calls it a "secure employment level." The goal is to get a job guarantee — for GM to promise to keep the union employment level where it is today as the automaker transitions to making all EVs, but adds Booth, "I actually envision GM needing more employees as it transitions (to EVs) because it'll still be producing internal combustion cars, too."
He acknowledged that the Jobs Bank was contentious and costly, which means his new idea will be an "interesting" conversation. But he's ready for bargaining and he comes to it with an open mind. He and GM's Perez made a pact that the two will never lie to each other or try anything "slick to pull something funny" over on the other, Booth said.
GM spokesman David Barnas declined to comment on the secure employment level goal because GM does not comment on contract negotiation topics outside of bargaining.
On the other side of the table
Across the table from Booth will be GM's Perez, who is slightly younger at 48, but has equal experience in the industry, including spending a lot of time on factory floors in various plant management roles.
"I was on the floor on a regular basis," Perez said of his career, noting he enjoys interacting with people. "It’s where I find the most joy is being on the floor."
Perez joined GM in 1997 and spent years in management roles across various U.S. plants and in China and Thailand. In 2017, he ran Flint Assembly for three years before GM promoted him to executive director of global manufacturing strategy and planning. He got his current job in August 2022, just a few months before Booth was elected. Perez told the Detroit Free Press he relies on his relationships when bargaining.
"I’ve always approached all problems by building relationships, listening to what the other side needs or is saying and working together to find solutions to whatever those problems might be," Perez said. "It’s always been through the eye of the relationships.”
Loves to drive
Back at Solidarity House, Booth pulls into the parking lot daily in his new ride: A 2023 GMC Yukon XL full-size SUV.
“Up until a month and a half ago, I was driving a Dodge RAM pickup," Booth said. "But being at GM department, my friends here called it the 'walk of shame' — driving in with the Dodge RAM."
An avid hunter and fisherman, Booth also is a self-professed car guy. He loves to drive and he loves to tinker with old cars. He still thinks about that old 1941 Dodge Stake truck.
"When I look back at that, I really, really wish I still had that vehicle," Booth said. The truck ran and he drove it around the farm for a year because "as soon as you were big enough to push the clutch in, you were allowed to drive."
But when he turned 16, his dad bought him a used 1978 Pontiac Trans Am muscle car "that was just freedom."
Booth described his mechanical skills as "not an expert at any stretch. The hands-on stuff is easy. But when you get down to rebuilding an engine, that’s going to take a while, not like a true mechanic would be able to do, but I can tinker with it.”
Here are some other fun facts about him:
- Favorite book: "Once Upon A Car" by Bill Vlasic. Because it is about the union in the car industry.
- His favorite thing to watch on TV: Professional hockey games.
- A personal motto he lives by: "Don't bull---- people."
- His hero is: Mom and Dad.
- His dream vacation: Aruba, where "my wife and I go every year. It's relaxed and no pressure."
Big expectations require new talking points
As the talks approach, Booth said he will be using the phrase "just transition" more frequently. It means that he wants a new national contract to include language to ensure that the work UAW members currently do on gasoline-powered cars is transferred to EVs.
"There’s a whole lot more to an electric vehicle than just the batteries," Booth said. "You have the servo amplifiers, the charge controllers for the battery, the cabling and all the electronics that drive the vehicle. We want that all. The UAW wants to represent all of those people."
It is a tall order to win it all and Booth is under no illusion that the talks will be easy. But he remains sanguine knowing he has the power of solidarity and teamwork behind him.
"Pressure is what you as a person make of it," Booth said. "If you let things weigh you down, that's exactly what it will do. When you're having a bad day, take a deep breath, look at it and take that first step forward and say, 'Yeah, I'm fixing the problem.' Besides there are a lot of smart people in this UAW GM Department that I just ask the question, and I get the answer."
Contact Jamie L. LaReau: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter. Become a subscriber.