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Chrysler, UAW contract talks kick off with show of unity

July 26, 2011

Chrysler, UAW contract talks kick off with show of unity

Optimism abounds as contract negotiations begin in earnest

/ The Detroit News

Auburn Hills— Chrysler Group LLC and the United Auto Workers kicked off formal negotiations on a new national labor contract Monday with the customary handshake.

But this year’s photo opportunity was anything but traditional.

Both sides’ bargaining teams filed into the auditorium where the talks will be held at Chrysler’s headquarters wearing identical maroon jackets emblazoned with the logos of the company and the union. It was impossible to tell who was from Chrysler and who was from the UAW.

The symbolism was clear: This time, we are all on the same team.

UAW President Bob King said his union and the company understand that they owe it to the American taxpayers — who bailed out the Auburn Hills automaker and saved thousands of union jobs in 2009 — to prove that they have learned from their mistakes.

“We collectively feel we have a huge responsibility to the American public,” he said, adding that negotiating a competitive agreement with Chrysler would lead to more job creation.

Chrysler Vice President of Employee Relations Al Iacobelli agreed.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that we do not go back to the old formulas,” he said.

Both sides expressed confidence that they would soon hammer out an agreement that rewards workers for their contribution to Chrysler’s recent success and protects the competitiveness gains the company has made since the last national contract was negotiated in 2007.

“We know that if we continue to talk and continue to negotiate, we can work through anything,” said UAW Vice President General Holiefield, head of the union’s national Chrysler department. “I’m very certain we will.”

The current agreement expires Sept. 14.

Both sides hope to reach an agreement without the drama and confrontation that has characterized past negotiations. In 2007, Chrysler workers walked out for few hours before an agreement was reached.

This time, the UAW is prevented from striking the automaker by the terms of the 2009 bailout agreement. Any issues on which the two sides cannot agree would go to binding arbitration. But both the company and the union said that would be tantamount to failure.

General Motors Co., which was also bailed out by Uncle Sam in 2009, enjoys the same protection from a strike. But not Ford Motor Co.

The Dearborn automaker saved itself from the crisis that brought down the American automobile industry in 2008. It reached a voluntary agreement with King and the UAW that would have afforded it similar protection, but that deal was rejected by rank-and-file union members.

Still, King said Monday that he does not intend to disadvantage any automaker.

“We’re not thinking about strikes. We’re not thinking about a strike target,” he said. “That’s old thinking.”

Chrysler said it would like to get rid of some other old thinking as well, including much of the approximately 3,500-page national contract. Iacobelli said most of the language in the arcane document dates back to the 1960s.

“We seldom look at the book,” Iacobelli said.

Holiefield defended the length of the tome.

“It’s not the size of the ship that matters,” he said.

“It’s the direction it’s heading,” Holiefield added.

And he said it is now heading in the direction of collaboration, not confrontation. However, his comments suggested that disagreements persist between the union and the company, at least on that issue.

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