Monday, September 24, 2007

[olympiaworkers] G.M. Workers Begin Walkout as Contract Talks Continue

G.M. Workers Begin Walkout as Contract Talks Continue


DETROIT, Sept. 24 — Members of the United Automobile Workers union across
the country began to walk off the job this morning even as contract talks
continued beyond a strike deadline.

Union officials at G.M.'s plant in Bowling Green, Ky., said they had
received a call from union headquarters in Detroit saying the contract had
been extended for one hour beyond the 11 a.m. deadline.

But union local presidents at a number of plants instructed workers to
walk out. It was not immediately clear how many of G.M.'s 73,000 workers
were heeding such calls, and there was no comment from union leaders in

The contentious negotiations on a new contract have centered on the
union's demand for job protection for its shrinking work force, and G.M.'s
push for worker concessions.

The last time the U.A.W. struck G.M. nationwide was in 1970, in a walkout
that lasted two months. The union's last strike at G.M. was in 1998, when
workers at two plants in Flint, Mich., struck the company in a walkout
that nearly shut its operations in North America.

The U.A.W.'s contract with G.M. expired at midnight on Sept. 14, and the
union extended it on an hour-by-hour basis.

But late Sunday, the U.A.W. told workers to be prepared to walk off the
job at 11 a.m. Eastern time if no deal had been reached. In a statement
early today, the union said it had set the strike deadline because G.M.
had failed to address job security and other "mandatory issues of
bargaining" which it did not name.

Union officials criticized G.M. for continuing to pay bonus compensation
to its executives, while pressing U.A.W. members to make concessions.
(G.M. did not pay cash bonuses to its top officials last year, but gave
them stock awards and other perquisites.)

"This is our reward," said Cal Rapson, a union vice president and director
of the union's G.M. Department, adding that G.M. was demanding that "our
members accept a reduced standard of living."

The harsh tone of the statement was in sharp contrast to the silence that
had surrounded the talks until then. The U.A.W. had not commented publicly
on the negotiations since they began in July, although it has sent updates
to its local unions.

G.M. has called the talks the most crucial in a generation. The company
has pushed hard for a key demand, the creation of a health care trust that
would take over G.M.'s liability for benefits for workers, retirees and
their families.

G.M. estimated the liability at $55 billion, and said it was a stumbling
block to becoming competitive with leaner Japanese manufacturers.

While the two sides had agreed on the framework for such a trust, the
union was said to be seeking guarantees that G.M. would not cut any more
hourly jobs after it completes a restructuring plan next year. G.M.'s work
force is one-fifth its size in 1990, thanks to a series of plant closings
resulting from an unending slump in American sales.

The U.A.W. has also wanted G.M. to pay workers a bonus of several thousand
dollars apiece once the contract was approved, in an effort to defray any
other concessions sought by the company.

Even after a deal is reached at G.M., the union must still come to
agreements at Ford Motor and Chrysler, where the issue of a health care
trust is likely to be discussed.

Together, the three auto companies have a collective liability of nearly
$100 billion. The health care trust, called a voluntary employee benefit
association, or VEBA, would take over responsibility for paying benefits
to workers and their families.

For now, U.A.W. members will receive $200 a week in strike pay if they
walk picket lines, and are eligible for unemployment in many states.
Retired workers receive their benefits regardless of whether active
workers are on strike.

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