UAW says national strike is about member job security

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

DETROIT -- In the end, the first nationwide strike against General Motors Corp. in 37 years came because the United Auto Workers want something that GM will find difficult to promise: job security.

UAW officials said the 73,000 UAW members who work at about 80 U.S. facilities for the nation's largest automaker didn't strike Monday over what many thought would trip up the talks: A plan to shift the retiree health-care burden from the company to the union. They said they also didn't strike over wages.

They said union members walked out because they want GM to promise that future cars and trucks such as the replacement for the Chevrolet Cobalt small car or the still-on-the-drawing board Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric car will be built at U.S. plants, preserving union jobs.

The strike puts GM, which is restructuring so it can better compete with Asian automakers, in a bind as some of its new products begin to catch on with consumers. But it also means workers are taking a big risk -- giving up pay and slowing down GM in an uncertain economy.

"Job security is one of our primary concerns," UAW president Ron Gettelfinger told reporters Monday afternoon after talks broke off and the strike began. "We're talking about investment, and we're talking about job creation" and preserving benefits, he said.

Talks resumed a short time later as sign-carrying picketers marched outside plant gates, but weary bargainers stopped to rest around 7 p.m. Talks were to resume this morning.

The striking workers will receive $200 a week plus medical benefits from the UAW's strike fund. The union had more than $800 million in that fund as of last November, according to the UAW's Web site.

The UAW, Gettelfinger said, is willing to talk about taking money from the company to form a trust that would be responsible for billions of dollars in retiree health-care costs.

GM wants the trust, called a Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association, or VEBA, so it can move much of its $51 billion in unfunded retiree health-care liabilities off the books, potentially raising the stock price and credit ratings. It's all part of the company's quest to cut or eliminate about a $25-per-hour labor cost disparity with its Japanese competitors.

"This strike is not about the VEBA in any way, shape or form," Gettelfinger said. "We were more than eager to discuss it," although he said no agreement had been reached.

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