UAW, Big Three wrap up talks

/ Source: The Associated Press

The United Auto Workers wrapped up tentative labor contracts with the Big Three automakers Thursday and concluded two months of talks in which a common yet unprecedented theme emerged: labor and management sought to take a joint stand against foreign competitors.

“Since the start of these negotiations, one of our goals was to bring this industry together,” UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said Thursday after the UAW reached terms on tentative, four-year contracts with General Motors Corp. and supplier Delphi Corp.

The agreements were announced more than three days after previous labor pacts expired.

The UAW earlier this week reached tentative agreements, also for four years, with Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group and supplier Visteon Corp.

Only sketchy details of the pacts have been disclosed. The UAW appears to have sacrificed generous wage increases that characterized the 1999 deals to maintain nearly cost-free health care. In exchange, according to sources familiar with the talks, the automakers apparently gained flexibility to close or sell plants to better align supply and demand.

The 1999 pacts banned plant closings.

All agreements require ratification by rank-and-file union members, a process that’s expected to take place within the next 10 days. The GM pact generally mirrors the others in economic terms, Gettelfinger said, but he declined to discuss details.

In addition to more than 300,000 automotive workers across the country, the contracts affect another half-million retirees and their spouses.

The new contracts were negotiated during an era when the U.S. market share for GM, Ford and the Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler is at an all-time low, and foreign automakers continue to expand domestic lineups and capacity.

Gerald Meyers, the former chairman of American Motors Corp. and now a faculty member at the University of Michigan, said the two sides, despite having to bargain on complex issues, seemed to have a mutual goal.

“That end is to beat the daylights out of the Japanese,” Meyers said.

The combined U.S. market share of the Big Three fell to an all-time monthly low of 57.9 percent in August, while Chrysler was outsold in the domestic market for the first time by Toyota Motor Corp.

GM Chairman Rick Wagoner said he noted a new recognition from both sides about their respective issues.

“As far as I’m concerned both sides have taken the time to understand each other and the issues and come up with an agreement that meets the needs of our employees, the UAW and ... General Motors,” Wagoner said.

GM, the world’s largest automaker, has 115,000 active UAW workers and another 340,000 retirees and spouses. Delphi, which has 30,000 UAW workers, was spun off from GM in 1999, and the automaker remains its biggest customer.

The previous contracts were negotiated in 1999 during the term of Gettelfinger’s fiery predecessor, Stephen Yokich, who died shortly after he retired last year.

“Ron Gettelfinger is not your father’s labor leader,” Meyers said. “He knows something about business. He’s not a firebrand. He’s a negotiator. And that’s the way you can expect it to be until the Japanese threat subsides — and it’s not going to go away.”

Representatives of the union and the automakers have said they won’t discuss specifics of the pacts until the ratification process occurred.

Two sources familiar with the deals say they include a $3,000 signing bonus, a lump-sum payment in the second year and wage increases between 2 percent and 3 percent in the third and fourth years. At the end of the second quarter, a UAW-represented assembler earned $25.63 an hour.

The sources said the pacts also include provisions for plant closings or sales.

As part of its ongoing restructuring, Ford had said it planned to close four U.S. plants — Edison Assembly in New Jersey, St. Louis Assembly in Missouri, Cleveland Aluminum in Ohio and Vulcan Forge in Dearborn.

However, Ford now is reconsidering the fate of the St. Louis plant, where it builds the Ford Explorer sports utility vehicle, and has negotiated an option to close its full-size van plant in Lorain, Ohio, according to a source familiar with the tentative deal who spoke on condition of anonymity.

GM hasn’t publicly targeted any plants for closing recently, but two considered to have uncertain futures are aging factories in Linden, N.J., and Baltimore.

UAW leaders met Wednesday in Dearborn with union representatives of at least seven Chrysler parts plants that could be sold or closed as part of the new labor pact, according to a union source attending one of the briefings.

The list includes plants in Michigan, Alabama, Indiana, Ohio and New York and affects about 12,000 workers.