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UAW’s bargaining strategy complex

March 19, 2011 http://detnews.com/article/20110319/AUTO01/103190370

UAW’s bargaining strategy complex

Union to set agenda for auto talks amid more global unrest, anti-union rhetoric

CHRISTINA ROGERS
The Detroit News

As the United Auto Workers union takes its first steps at hammering out a national bargaining agenda next week, the task will be complicated by new challenges facing the U.S. auto industry and controversy now surrounding public sector unions.

The union gathering at Detroit’s Cobo Center — in advance of contract negotiations with Detroit’s Big Three this summer — falls against a rapidly shifting economic and political backdrop, adding complexity to talks that several weeks ago seemed relatively straightforward, labor experts said.

Political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has sent oil prices soaring and could hurt the auto industry recovery. The crisis in Japan is disrupting U.S. auto parts supplies, and its long-term impact is still unknown.

At the same time, legislative battles have sprung up across the Midwest, including in Michigan, challenging public sector bargaining rights.

“If they were negotiating a month ago, things would look better,” said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

“Now, the UAW is going to be on the national stage, and they’re very aware of it,” he added. “They’ve got to push, but not push too hard.”

About 1,200 union members from across the country will attend the three-day bargaining convention that begins Tuesday. Among those scheduled to speak are UAW President Bob King, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

The gathering is geared at setting negotiating principles for all UAW members — including those outside the auto sector — but contract talks with the Detroit’s Big Three are likely to capture the spotlight.

The UAW’s four-year contract with the automakers expires Sept. 14.

During the convention, which runs through Thursday, the UAW will hear from members and decide on key issues that will be raised at the bargaining table. They’ll also elect bargaining committee members and chairs to represent the rank and file.

The UAW has about 390,000 active members from a variety of public and private industry sectors, including auto, aerospace, higher education and gaming, and about 750 local unions, according to the union’s website.

The big issues for auto workers are likely to be job security and boosting factory employment, along with ensuring that workers share in the automakers’ returning prosperity, labor experts and union leaders say. That could include restoring benefits trimmed or eliminated in the previous contract to help the automakers survive.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. announced multibillion-dollar profits for 2010 and doled out large profit-sharing checks to hourly workers in January and February. Chrysler Group LLC also gave out bonuses to hourly workers after showing financial improvement.

The Big Three executives have previously said they want to make bonuses a larger part of hourly worker pay, so they can lower fixed costs related to labor and ensure union employees prosper when the companies make money.

But looming uncertainty in the auto industry may temper the union’s agenda.

“Obviously, people want their concessions back, but people have a lot of anxiety because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Jimmy Settles, a UAW vice president and head of the Ford unit.

Settles said next week’s convention is a chance to hear from members. “That’s our barometer to see what our delegates feel like,” he said.

Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said the UAW could seek a shorter three-year contract because circumstances surrounding the industry remain tenuous and the union may feel it can get a better deal the next time around.

“The recovery is slow, steady and risky,” McAlinden said. “And union leadership must know they can’t ask for too expensive of an agreement.”

Meanwhile, the UAW’s King has embarked on an aggressive campaign to organize foreign automaker factories and reverse a slide in membership numbers, an effort that could be hampered by the disaster in Japan.

Settles said the union isn’t likely to target a Japanese automaker if the company has been crippled by the Japan crisis.

Instead, the UAW is likely to target South Korean automakers first, McAlinden said. The union, he said, has the financial wherewithal to undertake this organizing campaign, along with continuing its public sector fight.

The UAW has set aside $60 million for strikes and campaigning, more than enough to take up both causes, McAlinden said. “They can tough it out,” he added.

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