Workers Tense as Talks With G.M. Drag On

Workers Tense as Talks With G.M. Drag On
DETROIT, Sept. 15 — Union halls and factory gates have always been
places for auto workers to gather at contract time, laying bets on what their negotiators will win for them in the latest round of talks.
But as talks between the United Automobile Workers union and General Motors stretched past a contract deadline early Saturday, workers’ bets were being replaced by fears over what they might have to give up.
Union and company negotiators held marathon bargaining meetings on concessions sought persistently by G.M., particularly in health care benefits, and the union’s equally firm effort to limit any harm to the benefits.
As the clock wound down on Friday night to a 12:01 a.m. Saturday deadline, workers at the G.M. truck plant in Pontiac, Mich., scurried to their cars at the end of their shifts, bracing against high winds and unseasonably chilly weather. There was little collegial chatter among them.
“You can see the mood right here,” said Bret Fightmaster, a team leader for the union, gesturing around the parking lot. “Nobody’s talking, nobody’s laughing. People are worried.”
He went on, “You get beat up on the job — no pats on the back when you do something good — and now could lose your benefits.”
A co-worker, Michael Nowacyzski, who has 29 years on the job, said he was alarmed to see G.M. recently cut temporary jobs at the plant, which has cut production because of slower sales of pickup trucks.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” Mr. Nowacyzski said.
At U.A.W. Local 22 in Detroit, officials worked into the early hours on issues in the local agreement covering workers they represent at G.M.’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant.
Workers ducked in occasionally, seeking what little information the local union’s president, George McGregor, could provide.
“I didn’t know what else to do, so I came here to hang out,” said Greg Kelly, a G.M. employee for 29 years. He and his wife work at the plant, “so there’s a lot at stake. Seems like we have a lot to lose this time.”
As if to take workers’ minds off the talks, the local union scheduled a Hawaiian luau, complete with a pig roast, for Saturday afternoon with the cool weather requiring sweatshirts as well as flowered shirts.
“We’re trusting in our leadership,” said Peggy Jones, a 10-year G.M. employee, who nursed a drink decorated with an tiny umbrella. Mr. McGregor, meanwhile, alternated between greeting guests and fielding update calls from union representatives.
“Hey, this was on the schedule,” Mr. McGregor said of the gathering. “Maybe it will turn into a settlement celebration.”
To be sure, there has been little official word out of the talks taking place at a U.A.W.-G.M. education center in Detroit.
Reporters, long used to camping out in the media centers at whichever Detroit auto company was chosen as the strike target, were not permitted on the premises.
That has led them to sit in their cars outside the education center, watching for movement, to haunt union halls or to simply make endless telephone calls from their offices, seeking information from local leaders at various plants.
People with knowledge of the negotiations said Saturday that much work remained on major issues, like the creation of a health care trust that G.M. and the other Detroit auto companies want to alleviate their nearly $100 billion liability for active workers, retirees and their families.
The union is also seeking job guarantees for workers who will be left at G.M. after it finishes cutting 30,000 jobs under a revamping plan to be completed next year.
But progress was described as slow in a process that is often tedious, raising the prospect that talks would continue through the weekend and potentially into the workweek.
Contrary to common perceptions, the actual exchange of proposals across the main bargaining table takes up only a small fraction of the time negotiators spend with one another.
Much work takes place over the phone, while small groups of bargainers go over proposals, line by line, in a contract the size of the Manhattan phone book.
Through it all, leaders like the U.A.W. president, Ron Gettelfinger, must gauge the reaction of individual workers to aspects of the contract, because officials do not want to risk an internal defeat that could force them to reopen talks.
Early Saturday, Mr. McGregor tried to envision an exchange between Mr. Gettelfinger and company negotiators.
“He is up there saying, ‘O.K., boys, in five minutes we’re walking out. G.M. is saying, ‘O.K., fine, and the work you do in Hamtramck is now going to China,’ ” Mr. McGregor theorized, leaning back in his office chair.
“I’d give anything to be a fly on that wall.”
But among workers, there seemed to be little appetite for a strike. Freddie Daniel, who has spent 28 years at the G.M. truck plant in Pontiac, said he needed only two more years before he could retire with full benefits.
“I don’t have long to go, so I need to work,” Mr. Daniel said.
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