A weakened union plays its only trump card

A weakened union plays its only trump card http://tinyurl.com/2mz6a4
Let's take UAW President Ron Gettelfinger at his word when he says, as he did Monday after striking General Motors Corp., "There's not one
person on this stage ... that wanted to see these negotiations end in a strike. Who wins in a strike?"
Gettelfinger, of course, blamed GM for being unreasonable.
But wasn't he also conceding, in a way, that the UAW is in a predicament? It's an institution with declining influence, fewer and fewer friends and one big weapon it can ill afford to use without destroying itself in the process.
"I hope that cool heads are still in the game here," David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, told me mid-afternoon Monday as UAW members took to the picket lines for what he hoped would be a brief walkout.
Let's all hope the same thing, because, as Cole added: "Things can get pretty sticky once a strike starts. This could be the death of the union."
Gettelfinger's problem is that he had few cards to play except the big one, a strike.
Apparently GM and the UAW have worked through the thorny, complicated issue of shifting responsibility for retiree health care into a union-run trust fund. And in return, the union was hoping for some strong assurances that future new products would be made -- and jobs preserved -- in American plants.
But GM has resolved not to submit to slow death by a thousand cuts. Rather than take a few more baby steps toward closing the competitive cost gap with Asian automakers Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai, GM is insisting that it take a big bite -- now -- out of that gap.
GM will agree to build products in U.S. plants, but not if that means preserving a higher fixed-cost structure than its key competitors.
The problem for Gettelfinger is that some of those high fixed costs come from job security provisions included in past contracts, such as the much-ridiculed jobs bank that has paid idled workers for extended periods of not working.
How much ground can Gettelfinger give in terms of concessions and still get the rank-and-file to ratify a new contract?
There is surely a limit. But UAW leaders no longer have any persuasive arguments to marshal in favor of preserving job security provisions that don't make economic sense.
"There was a time," Cole noted, "that the union label on American-made products was a reason to buy something. Now I'm afraid it's becoming a reason not to buy. There's a real concern that there's a negative sales reaction out there to union-made American brands."
Michigan's economy labors under the dual burden of its reliance on the Detroit Three and the long-standing reputation of Detroit and Michigan as a stronghold of truculent, overpaid and inflexible labor unions.
Forget about all the gains in productivity and recent cooperative deals between labor and management to cut health care costs and simplify work rules. The old antibusiness, pro-labor image is a hard one to shake -- and any nationwide automotive strike, no matter how brief, sends the wrong message to growing companies looking for the best place to invest.
GM, while making good progress on its turnaround the past two years, is still burning through cash in its North America automotive operations and could suffer enormous damage from a walkout of any length.
And what of the UAW itself, which has been touting its efforts to organize the nonunion U.S. plants of Toyota Motor Corp., other Asian automakers and growing suppliers such as Denso?
By striking GM, the union provides fodder for the antiunion campaigns at those companies, which play upon workers' fears that strike-happy labor unions will scare companies into closing U.S. plants and cutting jobs en masse.
Gettelfinger and his fellow UAW leaders will rightfully scrap for every job and every penny they can on behalf of their members.
But by going nuclear and playing the strike card -- and potentially destroying GM, the UAW and possibly Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC in the process -- the union has crossed a dangerous line.
How long before a strike cripples the Michigan economy, destroys the Detroit automakers and the UAW?
Three days? Two weeks? A month?
Let's not try to find out.
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