DETROIT — Having named General Motors the “strike target” in their negotiations with Detroit’s Big Three auto companies on Sept. 13, the United Auto Workers union had still not reached an agreement with GM as the People’s Weekly World went to press. The contract was scheduled to expire Sept. 14, but was being extended on a day-to-day basis as talks continued.

But union patience with the giant automaker was apparently beginning to run out. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger warned the union would be setting a strike deadline if negotiations with GM did not progress faster. In a message obtained by the Detroit Free Press, Gettelfinger said the talks must accelerate or the union would be forced to establish a firm deadline for strike action.

While no official word from the union had been released, it was widely assumed that health care and job security are the two main issues the union is fighting for.

On health care, GM has been seeking a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA) that would offload the company’s retiree health obligations onto a UAW-administered trust, thereby removing a huge liability from GM’s financial books. Sure to be contested was the extent to which GM funds the trust, since health care costs continue to go up and could easily rise faster than the fund grows.

On Sept. 16, three former UAW regional directors — Jerry Tucker, Paul Schrade and Warren Davis — released a letter critical of a VEBA-type agreement, saying there should be a union-wide discussion before one is agreed to. The letter said such an agreement would “undo decades of hard-won health care benefit protections, paid for in large part by wage diversions, past concessions and increased worker productivity. The potential consequences of adopting such a plan will be economically painful, if not disastrous, to those covered by it.”

Observers note that several existing VEBA-type plans, such as the one at Caterpillar, are already bankrupt.

Another major concern for the union has been getting a commitment from GM for workers’ job security and company investments in U.S. auto plants. The auto companies want the “flexibility” to close plants and take more UAW workers off their payroll by outsourcing to suppliers more non-production jobs and power train work.

Still another concern for workers is the push by GM, in a variety of ways, for wage concessions.

If GM cannot outsource all the work it wants to, it would like to pay lower wages to those who remain on its payroll, especially its new hires. A two-tier wage system for these workers and, for that matter, the entire workforce is an idea that GM has floated for some time now. The union has long resisted the introduction of two-tier schemes or the expansion of those that already exist.

A new contract with GM would affect about 412,000 active members, retired members, surviving spouses and other dependents.

Awaiting the results of its negotiations with GM, the UAW indefinitely extended the contracts it has with Ford and Chrysler. Past practice suggests that agreements with Ford and Chrysler may be patterned after the one with GM.

jrummel @pww.org

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