Plants to be pawns in UAW talks

Plants to be pawns in UAW talks
LORDSTOWN, Ohio -- At a massive factory complex not far from Cleveland, most
of the 3,200 hourly workers know they might play a major role in upcoming national contract talks between General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers.
As the union opens its national bargaining convention in Detroit today, the 5-million-square-foot Lordstown plant isn't scheduled to make any cars when the current products, the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5, go out of production after the 2009 model year.
GM won't say if Lordstown will get the next generation GM small car. It won't say if the plant will get anything. And it acknowledges that in Mexico a factory is being built that some analysts think might be the place where GM will produce small cars for North America. GM spokesman Tom Wickham would only say the plant's primary purpose will be to support GM sales in the Mexican market.
Lordstown, like several other plants without designated future products, is a bargaining chip for GM as it tries to extract concessions from the union and stem the billions in losses it suffered over the past two years. The strategy is repeating itself at Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, as they try to cut what analysts say is an average $2,400-per-car profit disadvantage against Japanese competitors.
"Of course we're concerned about it," said Dave Green, president of UAW Local 1714, one of two locals at the hulking Lordstown complex. "It's our livelihood."
Lordstown opened in 1966 and remains a major employer in a region battered by manufacturing job losses. It sits on the north side of the Ohio Turnpike, about 12 miles west of Youngstown. It cranked out 278,176 Cobalts and G5 small cars last year. Over the years it has made Pontiac Firebirds, Chevrolet Vegas and Impalas, as well as vans and other vehicles.
In the past, GM and other companies withheld products from plants as a strategy to negotiate worker concessions and tax incentives from local and state governments.
But with all three Detroit-area companies struggling, industry observers expect individual plants to become part of the national talks in the summer. UAW contracts with the automakers will expire in September.
When 1,500 union members from more than 800 UAW locals in the United States and Canada meet for two days this week in Detroit, they aren't expected to get into the nitty-gritty of what will be discussed with individual companies. But they will set the overall bargaining agenda.
"These are the most important negotiations in the UAW's history," said Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "This is where they have to reset their role as a bona fide bargaining agent. They have to try to resist concessions."
In the past few years, auto companies have been using threats of plant closures to negotiate "competitive operating agreements" on a plant-by-plant basis. They convinced union locals to allow workers to do several jobs and contracted out janitorial and other traditional union jobs to save money. At times, the bargaining pitted one plant against another.
"The war of all against all is under way," Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said in a recent presentation.
At Lordstown, a UAW bargaining committee has been talking with GM about such an agreement, said Jim Graham, president of Local 1112. Graham hopes an agreement will bring Lordstown a vehicle before the national bargaining begins.
"If we go ahead with this contract, I'm very confident that we'll get a product in 2009," said Graham.
-- The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. T.R. April 10, 1899
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