Autoworkers: Round 2

Chrysler, UAW agree on tentative pact

DETROIT — About 43,000 autoworkers streamed out of their workplaces Oct. 10 at Chrysler plants across the nation, launching a second nationwide auto strike within a two-week period, but this one lasting only about four hours. Members of the United Auto Workers union shut down plants and were on picket lines just minutes after the 11 a.m. strike deadline. But by around 4 p.m., a tentative settlement with the company was announced.

About an hour after the workers shut down Chrysler’s plants, the union’s bargaining team was meeting with company representatives, hammering out last-minute details. The company is reported to have put up strong resistance to union demands for job security guarantees and adequate health care funding.

For the second time in two weeks, autoworkers across the country flexed their muscle and showed their willingness to fight. The first time around the strike was against General Motors.

“This is not just a fight against Chrysler,” a worker picketing the Sterling Heights Assembly plant outside Detroit, told the World. “We are out here for everyone in this country who opposes sending manufacturing jobs overseas, and we are out here fighting for all working people.”

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters immediately honored the picket lines at Chrysler, ending for half a day the company’s ability to move everything from finished cars to automotive parts in or out of its plants.

When the Teamsters backed the GM strikers two weeks ago, the union’s president, James Hoffa, said, “This is a fight against corporate America’s attack on the workers.”

There were reports that Chrysler was trying to squeeze the union for more concessions than GM got two weeks earlier. Workers at GM ratified that agreement on Oct. 10, with about 60 percent giving their approval.

The union normally settles with one U.S. automaker and uses the deal as a pattern for an agreement with the other two. It was difficult for the union to do it this way because Chrysler pushed hard for more concessions.

In 2005, Chrysler did not get health care givebacks worth $340 million that GM and Ford got. The company wanted that money this time around.

The company and the union were apart, before the agreement, on setting up a Chrysler-funded, union-run trust that would take on $18 billion in retiree health costs. Chrysler’s new owner, Cerberus Capital, a private equity firm, wasn’t anxious to put much cash into a trust fund because equity firms suck up a lot of money quickly and then sell what remains. They are often only short-term owners.

Chrysler is resisting union demands for job security for the same reason, but also because it has announced plans to cut out various models. As a bargaining chip, Chrysler temporarily shut six production plants Oct. 3, just as negotiations were heating up. The shutdowns will last one to two weeks.

The several hour strike against Chrysler was the first major confrontation between organized labor and one of these private equity firms.

Before the strike Chrysler also hinted that it would cut even more than the 2,000 workers it said, last February, that it intends to lay off.

The union bargaining team, meanwhile, had indicated that it was resisting a two-tier wage system like the one the union accepted at GM.

The union may have had more leverage with Chrysler than it did with GM. Chrysler, unlike GM, couldn’t lean on profits from a huge international sales operation, and a longer strike at Chrysler would have caused almost immediate damage to the launch of the company’s critically important new minivans. Chrysler has redesigned the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country minivans for launch this fall, and they are among the company’s most profitable vehicles.

Although 60 percent of GM’s workers voted for their agreement, Chrysler and Ford workers may not necessarily rush to approve concessions. When 61 percent of GM workers backed the contract negotiated four years ago, Chrysler and Ford workers were much less supportive, backing it by margins just above 50 percent.

Workers at many GM plants, including plants in Missouri and New York and the Romulus engine plant in Michigan, actually rejected the tentative pact.

Workers who backed the recent deal with GM cited promises to continue production at 55 of the 82 UAW plants and the harsh economic climate as the main reasons for their support.

The two-tier wage system and GM’s shifting its health care responsibility onto the union were the hardest concessions to swallow.

Al Benchich, president of UAW Local 909 at a GM power-train plant in Warren, Mich., said globalization makes the union’s job more difficult, but that the problems with two-tier and health care were so great that he would “rather go down fighting the good fight.”

“The only power we have,” he said, “is to withhold our labor. … We may have to go back to the 1930s and man the barricades” or go back to the civil rights movement and “get out in the streets to make the changes necessary.”

Benchich said the two-day strike against GM provided a glimpse of what kinds of change may come. He described a temporary worker who was so impressed by how workers could shut down a huge company in a matter of minutes that he came in eight hours early to work on the strike, plastered signs on his truck and drove up and down all day in front of the plant.

jrummel @pww.org

John Wojcik contributed to this story.