UAW boss won't close door on more concessions

Speaking to members, Gettelfinger says union will fight to protect members' pay and benefits but also won't rule out more concessions.

By Chris Isidore, senior writer

DETROIT, Mich. ( -- United Auto Workers union President Ron Gettelfinger vowed to fight to protect his battered membership's interests, but did not close the door on future concessions to help stem the losses among U.S. automakers.

Speaking to about 1,500 union delegates at the start of a two-day collective bargaining convention, Gettelfinger attacked the Bush Administration, the nation's health care and trade policies, and some specific companies, including bankrupt auto parts supplier Delphi.

But he did not criticize the leadership of General Motors (down $0.38 to $31.87, Charts), Ford Motor (down $0.07 to $7.80, Charts) and the Chrysler Group, all of which have signaled they want to win labor cost savings from the union. All three have UAW contracts that expire in September.

All three companies are now losing money on their core automotive operations, although cost savings already won by GM allowed it to nearly break even on its North American auto unit in the fourth quarter.

Gettelfinger said that the union does not want to strike any employer but that it would if pushed too far. And he warned, "Where we have demonstrated cooperation, it would be a grave mistake to equate our actions to capitulation."

But the the union's proposed resolution that will be voted on by delegates also seemed to be warning membership that further concessions were possible.

"Due to challenging economic and political circumstances, we've also made the tough decisions, at some employers, to negotiate agreements which modify our wages, our health care and our pensions and other hard-won forms of compensation," said the resolution.

"We have agreed to these modifications only after a rigorous analysis of employer finances, and only when convinced that doing so would assist in preserving the long-term job and income security."

"The coming years will be just as tough - if not tougher," the resolution warned.

Gettelfinger would not make comments about the upcoming negotiations with the Big Three.

"For months, pundits self proclaimed experts and analysts predicted what we might or should do," he said. "That's their prerogative. However, we're not going to respond to rumors or speculation."

More than 70,000 UAW members at GM and Ford have taken retirement and severance packages to voluntarily leave the company during the last year as the companies move to close excess capacity, given their market share losses to nonunion automakers such as Toyota Motor (down $1.79 to $130.91, Charts) and Honda Motor (down $0.48 to $35.66, Charts).

Chrysler has announced plans to cut 9,000 UAW jobs in the coming years as it closes plants, along with another 4,000 Canadian autoworkers and salaried staff. The company has been put up for sale by DaimlerChrysler (up $1.46 to $82.66, Charts).

Gettelfinger warned that the potential sale of Chrysler, especially if it is to a private equity group, will be a threat to membership.

"We have equity and hedge funds circling overhead as never before. It is unfortunate, but that many of them are out to increase their wealth by stripping and flipping the companies," he said, adding that apprehension by membership is justified, although he promised the union would be on guard for workers' interest.

But there were some critics of the union's leadership among the delegates holding signs and passing out flyers outside the convention center.

Mike Parker, a delegate from the local that represents workers at the Chrysler Sterling Heights, Mich., assembly plant, asked that the convention's agenda be changed to add a session on "Organizing to fight back."

"The companies have made it clear that they are not our partners but will take everything possible from us," Parker said in comments from the floor. "This union is in crisis. It's not working now. We have to start doing things differently."

But Parker's proposal was defeated on a voice vote of the convention.

One delegate Gary Walkowicz, a 32-year veteran of Ford's Dearborn Truck Plant in Michigan and one of the delegates to the convention, said that rank-and-file opposition to further concessions is much greater than the union's leadership. He came with a letter signed by more than 1,000 members calling for no concessions by the union in the upcoming talks.

"I think there's a very strong attitude among the membership that we've already given up too much," he said just before the start of the convention.

"Concessions are not saving jobs. Concessions are just leading to more concessions. I believe very strongly we need to take a stand right now."

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