updated 10/22/2007 5:59:14 PM ET 2007-10-22T21:59:14

The tentative deal between the United Auto Workers and Chrysler LLC was hailed as a historic step forward for the company just a couple of weeks ago. Many rank-and-file members, however, have rejected that message.

In early voting, six local unions representing more than 11,000 workers have turned down the pact, while four locals representing about 5,500 workers have said “yes.” It’s nearly impossible to keep a running total of the votes because local union officials give out only percentages and not the number of people who voted.

Yet with large chunk of the 45,000 workers covered by the contract still voting, UAW leaders in Detroit have started a heavy lobbying campaign for passage. Several big locals in Indiana and Michigan are scheduled to vote Tuesday and Wednesday.

“It’s going to be close. They’re going to work very hard here at the end to pull this together,” David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said Monday.

UAW workers haven’t rejected a national contract since Chrysler employees did in 1982, said Mike Smith, director of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.

Opponents mainly object to a lower-tier wage scale for many new hires of around $14 per hour and new vehicle guarantees for factories that mainly run for the life of the contract but are less than what General Motors Corp. guaranteed workers in its contract settlement.

If the contract is voted down, the UAW likely would return to the bargaining table to try to address members’ concerns, said Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove.

“If you’re a bargainer, then you’ll know if it’s been rejected you’ll have to go back and try to get a better deal in those areas,” Hargrove said.

Chrysler sells most of its vehicles in North America and has little global presence. Its new owner, private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, needs a partner to give it the global economy of scale that GM, its main competitor, already is using, Cole said.

Without a competitive wage agreement, no partner will join Chrysler, and that could make Cerberus look for other options to get a return on its investment, such as selling off the company in pieces.

“I don’t think the membership at Chrysler really quite understands the gravity of the situation,” Cole said.

Chrysler, he said, is likely to cut models, so it can’t guarantee next-generation products for individual plants like GM did, he said.

Workers know the risk — Cerberus could sell off the company — and they’re aware of global competition, said Chris Ryan, a worker at a transmission plant in Kokomo, Ind.

But Ryan, a third-generation Chrysler worker, is reluctant to give up benefits, such as pensions, that his grandfather helped win with a long strike.

“It is a very tense situation,” Ryan said. “Do you want to just go along willingly or do you want to put up some resistance?”

The chief opponent of the contract is Bill Parker, the UAW’s national Chrysler negotiating chairman and president of Local 1700 at suburban Detroit’s Sterling Heights assembly plant.

Top UAW leaders were to meet with Parker and officers of his local on Monday afternoon in advance of the local’s vote Wednesday. Locals representing about 7,000 workers in Kokomo vote Tuesday, and locals in Sterling Heights and Warren, with about 9,000 members, vote Wednesday.

A negative vote by Chrysler members wouldn’t damage UAW President Ron Gettelfinger’s credibility, said David Weil, an associate professor of economics at Boston University.

“If you think about what they’re negotiating and what a major change this agreement really is ... it’s not surprising that this thing has not sort of just sailed through,” Weil said.

Melvin Thompson, president of a local in Warren, said he’s been lobbying in favor of the pact because it saves jobs at several operations and preserves communities.

If Chrysler is more competitive, that would bring job security to workers, he said.

“We know that our security lies in producing a high-quality product that customers love at a low production cost,” he said. “Simply promising you a product doesn’t promise anything.”

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