Saturday, May 06, 2006

Strike vote is just beginning of hard part for UAW boss

Friday, May 05, 2006
Daniel Howes

Strike vote is just beginning of hard part for UAW boss

In a town full of tough jobs, United Auto Workers' President Ron Gettelfinger has the toughest of them all -- and the hard part is just beginning.

He wants his 24,000 members at Delphi Corp. to give him authority to call a strike should the bankrupt supplier move, with court approval, to void its union contracts. He'll get it.

He can't let the former parts unit of General Motors Corp. use the courts to "eviscerate gains achieved by the UAW over 70 years," according to a union filing in advance of next week's crucial hearing in New York. Nor can he let understandably angry and scared members strike Delphi, shut down GM and, if the walkout lasts long enough, tip GM into bankruptcy.

He needs a solvent, if smaller, GM to provide health-care and pension benefits to hundreds of thousands of retirees. As an elected union leader, Gettelfinger also needs to show his members that he's not becoming an accommodationist doormat.

Toughest job of all

He's not, unless cutting deals to give 16,000 retiring members $35,000 each as goodbye gifts is being a doormat. Or managing the long-overdue downsizing of GM's plant empire. Or spending political capital to get a second-tier wage deal for new hires -- all without ugly strikes that would make a bad situation worse.

This guy doesn't just have the toughest job in town. He's probably got the toughest job in industrial America. If GM Chairman Rick Wagoner fails, he'll get a multimillion-dollar pension and GM would continue in some form. If Delphi Corp. Chairman Robert S. "Steve" Miller fails, an overseas Delphi would remain and he'll have a comfortable retirement in Oregon.

If Gettelfinger fails, the UAW of the past 70 years most likely would be gutted -- and so would his legacy. The union would be smaller, weaker, and tens of thousands would spend their golden retirement years with less gold than they expected. Its organizing spiel, especially in the core industries, would be neutered.

That's why I have more faith in the ability of Gettelfinger, Wagoner and Miller, the UAW's nemesis, to find some level of mutual discomfort to fix this situation than a fatalistic belief that they will "blow the place up," as the saying goes. Too many people have too much to lose.

Might wouldn't be right

It may be fashionable in some quarters to root for a cataclysmic confrontation of raw power -- union types want to "shut 'em down" and management types want to show the union how the "real world works." Here's a news flash: Neither one of those caricatures has it right, and the smarter heads on both sides know it.

"We believe adversarial relationships drive manufacturing jobs out of the country," Bob King, the UAW's vice president for organizing, told an automotive conference last month. "There are no sacred cows in terms of old practices and old strategies. We are committed to change and we are changing."

If you don't buy that, you're not paying attention to what Gettelfinger & Co. are doing -- and how difficult it really is.

Daniel Howes' column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at or (313) 222-2106. Catch him Fridays with Paul W. Smith on NewsTalk 760-WJR.


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