NEW YORK (CNNfn) - The top negotiators for General Motors Corp. and the striking United Auto Workers Union met briefly Monday in a sign that talks between the two warring sides may be getting serious.
GM labor chief Gerald Knechtel met with UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker for more than an hour Monday, the first time the two key officials have sat down to discuss the walkout in more than two weeks.
UAW Local 651 President Danny Thetford said he was encouraged by the development but he cautioned against reading too much into the high level talks.
"These things have a way of heating up and then cooling off," he said. "But I'm encouraged." Anytime you have dialogue at that level, it's a positive development."
Strikes by 9,200 GM workers that began earlier this month at two parts facilities have crippled GM operations in North America and prompted the layoffs of 162,700 workers and idled 26 assembly plants and 100 parts plants.
UAW Local 659 at GM's Flint Metal Center stamping plant went on strike 25 days ago, claiming GM has reneged on its promise to invest $300 million in new equipment at the plant.
UAW Local 651 at GM's Delphi East parts plant, which makes spark plugs, filters and electronic systems, went on strike June 11.
Thetford said talks between GM and Local 651 also accelerated Monday with " a lot more dialogue" passing back and forth than in the past.
GM spokesman Gerry Holmes said he did not know if talks signaled a change in the negotiations or whether Knechtel and Shoemaker would meet again on Tuesday.
However, the company appeared to be softening its approach slightly. Earlier, GM said it would continue to provide health care benefits to non-striking workers that had been idled as a result of the walkout. Last week, the company said it would halt medical coverage for striking workers and raised the possibility of extending that to the idled workers as well.
Last year, GM spent $4.8 billion, or roughly $400 million a month, on health care for U.S. employees, retirees and surviving spouses of deceased former employees, Holmes said.
Continuing to pay health benefits, which Holmes said the company is not contractually obligated to do, comes amid a fervid effort by GM to cut costs during the strike.
That has included reducing off-site meetings, squeezing efficiency out of hourly employees such as maintenance, cutting a big advertising budget and even reducing its purchases of office supplies.
Holmes refused to comment on whether GM would announce whether the strike has bitten into profits for its second quarter, which ends Tuesday.
GM shares (GM) rose 1-3/8 to 68-1/4 Monday on the New York Stock Exchange.