Friday, July 13, 2007

UAW boss not in giveback mode

Thursday, July 12, 2007
UAW boss not in giveback mode
Gettelfinger says union has already made sacrifices
Louis Aguilar and Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said the union is not entering the upcoming contract talks with Detroit automakers with givebacks in mind and defended the controversial jobs banks program that provides pay and benefits for laid off workers.

"We're not going into negotiations in a concessionary mode, I'll tell you that," Gettelfinger said Wednesday after speaking at the NAACP national convention at Cobo Center.

Asked whether the UAW will fight to keep the jobs bank, which Detroit automakers have made clear they want to eliminate or modify, Gettelfinger responded: "That may be what the companies' position is," but "we've done a lot with the jobs bank, the companies know that."

Gettelfinger repeatedly told reporters he refuses to negotiate the contract in the press. The negotiations formally begin July 20 with Chrysler Group and Ford Motor Co. officials. Talks with General Motors Corp. kick off July 23.

Gettelfinger accused automakers of using the media to portray the UAW as entering the talks willing to give deep concessions in pay, retiree health care and pensions. "Which it appears the media is more than eager to do," Gettelfinger said.

He argued that the UAW already has made many compromises -- particularly on health care benefits and plant level operating agreements.

Detroit automakers already have begun to chip away at the jobs bank. In May, the UAW cut a deal with GM to clear about 400 skilled trades workers out of job banks in Flint and Lansing. And through local agreements and massive buyouts, the Detroit automakers have reduced the number of workers in jobs banks from 12,000 in 2006 to 4,200 currently.

The union also has agreed to changes on health benefits. This month, the UAW reached a deal with bankrupt auto supplier Dana Corp. that will transfer retiree health care responsibility and long-term disability benefits for workers to union-managed voluntary employees' beneficiary associations, or VEBAs.

Dana would cease providing those benefits and fund the VEBAs, which are separate trusts, with a payment of about $700 million in cash and $80 million of stock in the reorganized company.

"That is a precursor to nothing," Gettelfinger said. "This is a company that was in bankruptcy, and a lot of people were predicting that we would not get anything in regards to people's health care."

UAW Vice President General Holiefield, who leads the UAW's Chrysler unit, challenged the notion that this year's talks will be more difficult than past negotiations.

"They've always been called the worst and we've always managed to get the job done," said Holiefield, who was at the NAACP event. "I know that things are tough economically for the company but they also have very good products. I always tell UAW members that we've always managed to find a light at the end of the tunnel."

In his speech, Gettelfinger delivered a blistering attack on discount retailer Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, before hundreds of enthusiastic NAACP convention attendees.

"The fact that one half of Wal-Mart workers have no health care coverage speaks volumes about what's wrong with American health care coverage," Gettelfinger said as the crowd began to rise to its feet. "It is always low wages that are behind those low prices. We can do better in America. We can fight to keep good-paying jobs, manufacturing jobs. We can work together to find a solution to fix a broken health care system.

"We can hold employers accountable for being part of the problem and encourage them to become part of the solution," Gettlefinger said as he strained his voice to speak over the cheering crowd. "Let's stand up. Let's speak out. Let's take charge. Let's fight together.

"Solidarity. Solidarity. Solidarity forever."

You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 or

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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