UAW workers are getting few answers
September 25, 2007
By TOM WALSH
FREE PRESS BUSINESS COLUMNIST
People are angry.
People are frightened.
But mostly people are confused about why 73,000 UAW members are on
strike at General Motors Corp. plants nationwide.
UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said Tuesday that he was “very puzzled”
about why his negotiators were not able to bargain a deal with GM before
calling a strike.
And if Gettelfinger is puzzled, you can bet lots of the poor souls out
there on picket lines are completely mystified, because they’ve been
told virtually nothing by Solidarity House or GM about the bargaining
details as talks progressed.
“This whole thing’s a farce,” a 31-year veteran worker at GM’s
Janesville, Wis., SUV assembly plant told me Tuesday. “In the past, we
always got updates on contract talks, points of interest from our local
union reps. This time, we’re being told nothing.
“They know if they send a contract out now for ratification, the workers
won’t pass it. So they send us out on the street, and after two or three
weeks without paychecks, people will ratify anything,” the worker said,
asking that his name not be used for fear of possible harassment.
Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research
in Ann Arbor, said it would be cynical to think Gettelfinger would call
a national strike to wear down the resistance of his own members.
But it’s possible, he said, that “Ron is sort of double-bluffing here.”
On one hand, Gettelfinger is trying to force GM to take some of its most
unpleasant — from the UAW’s viewpoint — proposals off the table. Things
such as a two-tier wage structure to pay some workers less, substitution
of a 401(k) plan for a traditional pension and greater use of temporary
While GM is probably the primary target of Gettelfinger’s strike gambit,
it’s also possible that he’s trying to soften up the rank-and-file for
ratification votes at GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, McAlinden said.
In UAW showdowns with Detroit’s automakers over the past few decades,
the union has favored the so-called bottleneck strike, in which it could
shut down many North American assembly plants by striking key component
plants that supply transmissions or engines for a wide range of
vehicles. That way, only workers at component plants would be on strike,
and idled workers at other affected plants could collect state
unemployment benefits instead of more-meager strike pay.
By calling a national strike instead, Gettelfinger is exposing all of
GM’s UAW workers to significant financial hardship if the strike extends
beyond a few days.
“The first one or two weeks of a strike are like vacation, but then the
bills come due,”
GM, meanwhile, “is showing a lot of backbone,” he said, by insisting on
a range of cost-saving measures beyond shifting its $50 billion in
retiree health care obligations to an independent trust fund run by the
union, which has been the centerpiece of these talks.
GM apparently is resolved to stick to its plan of reducing its fixed
costs to 25% of total revenue worldwide by 2010. The company’s fixed
cost burdenwhittled to 28% during the first six months of 2007, thanks
to GM plant closings, buyouts and mid-contract retiree health care
concessions from the union.
Still, if GM wants to get fixed costs down to 25% by 2010, it must find
another $6 billion annually to cut during the term of the next UAW contract.
Gettelfinger, speaking to WJR-AM radio talk show host Paul W. Smith on
Tuesday, insisted that the UAW is being “very responsible.”
“We care about our jobs. We care about our communities. We work hard,”
he said, adding that, “We ran into a little situation here where we
found it necessary to call a strike action.”
Many UAW members who have called or e-mailed me are willing to trust in
Gettelfinger and other UAW leaders for now, despite the dearth of
details about bargaining.
But each day the strike continues, the pressure will build. People want
to know why they’re striking, and ultimately, what exactly is being
gained from their sacrifice.