Auto talks tough, yet drama free

August 24, 2011

Auto talks tough, yet drama free

Confrontation muted with both sides motivated by amicable pact

/ The Detroit News

The most remarkable thing about this year’s contract negotiations between the Detroit’s Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers is how unremarkable they are.

There has been none of the usual drama, and both sides seem determined to keep it that way. UAW President Bob King said the companies and his union want to show American taxpayers that they appreciate the help they provided the industry, by negotiating win-win contracts without strikes, vitriol or eleventh-hour bargaining.

But that does not mean there are not weighty issues on the table.

The UAW and General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC are trying to figure out a profit-sharing plan that does not add significantly to their fixed costs and make them uncompetitive.

They also are trying to negotiate a more equitable pay system for entry-level workers. Newer hires make just over $14 an hour, about half what veteran employees make. King said the current system does not provide new workers with a living wage. “They’re tough issues. They’re complicated issues. But I’m confident that we have the history of creative problem-solving now to work through them,” King said. “We’ve got good companies that we’re dealing with.”

Dissidents want to fight

But King’s cooperative approach worries some workers. UAW dissidents said they already have sacrificed enough. Now that all three companies are on the rebound, they want some of the givebacks made during the 2007 contract negotiations restored.

“It is very clear that if we want to get back even part of the concessions, then we have to be prepared to fight for it,” dissident leader Gary Walkowicz wrote in a letter to union members Monday.

“Ford, GM and Chrysler have already made it very clear that they have no intention of giving back the concessions they have taken from us. They have said that we shouldn’t be expecting raises; that permanent 2-tier (wages are) here to stay.”

Walkowicz, whom King defeated for the UAW presidency last year, and others already are organizing a “Vote No” campaign against the new contract, even though it is still being negotiated. The contract expires Sept. 14.

“That’s the wonders of democracy. They have a right to do that. I know, overall, the membership will judge the merits of the contract,” King said. “It’s up to us to deliver a good contract that the members know is good for them, is good for the communities they work (in) and is good for the long-term success of the companies.”

A UAW grievance, filed last year against Ford over claims that salaried workers didn’t sacrifice as much as U.S. hourly workers in giving up pay increases and bonuses, will be heard by an arbitrator Sept. 15, a day after Ford’s contract expires for 41,000 U.S. hourly workers, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday.

Walkouts preceded last deal

When the UAW negotiated its last national contract with GM, Ford and Chrysler four years ago, the talks did not even begin in earnest until the deadline for reaching a deal had passed. Union members walked off the job at Chrysler and GM, too.

But that was before the industry was brought to its knees by a crisis that was caused, in part, by decades of antagonism between labor and management. Ford extricated itself from the mess with the help of the union, but GM and Chrysler went bankrupt.

“It’s really important for the American public to know that both the companies and our membership really appreciate the loans that we got,” King said. “We take very seriously the long-term success of these companies because of the impact it has on everybody in society.”

And while King has said he would like to announce an agreement with all three automakers by next month’s deadline, he said it’s not the most important thing. “What’s more important than the deadline is a good result for our members, for the community, for creating jobs in America,” he said.

“We want consumers and the public to know that labor and management, community and government can all work together to make a better country — to rebuild the middle class in this country — so we do look at it as a great opportunity to demonstrate that.”

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