IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Issues unresolved as auto talks deadline looms

A number of issues remained unresolved Friday between General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers union as a midnight contract deadline loomed, according to an e-mail sent to local union leaders.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A number of issues remained unresolved Friday between General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers union as a midnight contract deadline loomed, according to an e-mail sent to local union leaders.

The UAW and GM negotiations ended around 2 a.m. and resumed later Friday morning, according to a person familiar with the talks who was not authorized to speak publicly because the negotiations are private.

In a memo sent Thursday to union leaders, chief GM negotiator Cal Rapson named GM as the lead company, as well as a potential strike target.

“We are continuing to meet with the corporation and expect to put in long hours between now and the deadline,” Rapson said in the memo, obtained by The Associated Press. “We are fully focused on reaching a tentative agreement that meets the needs of our active and retired members.”

Bargaining has been under way for months, formally beginning in July. Until Thursday, talks appeared to be progressing, but several local union leaders at GM plants said they have been told to begin strike preparations.

Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC have agreed to indefinite extensions of their contracts, according to company officials. Typically, the union negotiates an agreement with the lead company it chooses, then reaches similar agreements with the other two.

GM was chosen because it is the healthiest of the U.S. automakers right now, according to analysts. The automaker has chalked up three profitable quarters as it shed thousands of jobs and closed plants in a massive restructuring.

“Historically, the union picked the strongest company financially and operationally so that they could extract a rich contract out of the more prosperous one and go about imposing it on the weaker companies,” said David Healy, an analyst with Burnham Securities.

Aaron Bragman, an auto industry analyst with the consulting firm Global Insight, said the UAW also wants GM to commit to building products at union plants.

Bragman also said GM has been pushing hardest for the UAW to form a trust fund and take over the automakers’ unfunded long-term retiree health care liability, estimated at a combined $90 billion. Negotiators were discussing how much the companies will put into the fund and what the union will get in exchange for taking on the liability.

The situation remained fluid as the deadline neared.

Workers at a Cadillac assembly and stamping complex in Lansing readied their union hall to be the area’s strike headquarters and were making picket signs, said Chris “Tiny” Sherwood, president of UAW Local 652.

Such preparations are standard in the days before the contracts expire. But Sherwood, who has been in touch with a member of the union’s national bargaining committee, said he was told the talks took a turn for the worse late Wednesday.

“Apparently from last night until this morning, everything’s changed,” Sherwood said Thursday. “I’ve never been asked to get my hall ready for a strike in the last four contracts.”

Union officials at several other plants who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak about the talks said they, too, were preparing members for a walkout.

UAW international spokesman Roger Kerson in Detroit would not comment Thursday afternoon, nor would GM spokesman Tom Wickham.

This year’s talks are considered critical to the struggling Detroit automakers, which last year lost a combined $15 billion. They have cut thousands of jobs and shuttered plants to compete with Japanese automakers.

It’s difficult to tell whether the strike preparation talk is just posturing before the deadline, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.

“There’s a fine line between theater and substance in negotiations,” Shaiken said. “Given the stakes, given the complexity, given the tension, you’ve got a temporary derailment. It’s unclear whether it’s more serious than that.”

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said he still does not think either side has the stomach for a strike.

“I would expect some tension down near the end. At some point in any of these negotiations you get to a point where there’s some tough talk. It just normally arrives a lot earlier than this,” he said.