Sunday, February 11, 2007

Big 3 seek health, trade reforms

Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Big 3 seek health, trade reforms
Executives, Stabenow say U.S. must take action for industry to compete with Asian companies.
Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

With Democrats in control of Congress, a Michigan legislator and several auto industry executives believe there's a growing will to tackle health care and trade issues crucial to the U.S. auto industry's ability to compete against Asian rivals.

"We've got a health care system in crisis," U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said Monday at a town hall meeting at Ford's River Rouge Plant in Dearborn. The meeting was hosted by ABC News anchor Charles Gibson and aired on Channel 7 WXYZ-TV. "We have it as a very high agenda item for us with the new Congress coming in."

Executives for Detroit's struggling automakers said they were restructuring their operations and had improved quality but were handicapped by higher costs due to soaring health care expenses and unfair trade practices by some Asian countries.

American workers have already agreed to pay more for their health care to ease the burden on Detroit's automakers, union leaders said. The disadvantage has been estimated at $1,000 to $1,500 per vehicle.

Asked if the United Auto Workers union was prepared to grant more concessions in contract negotiations this year, UAW legislative director Alan Reuther said national action on health care was necessary. "The problem can't be solved just at the bargaining table by cutting and cutting and cutting," he said.

The participants said there was a mounting sense that the health system needs an overhaul.

"There's no longer any argument about whether or not this is a national crisis," said Ford Motor Co. spokesman Charles Holleran. "Even eight years ago, when this became a flashpoint, there were voices that said this can fix itself. No one is saying that this can fix itself now."

Union officials and executives called on Washington to confront some Asian trading partners.

"One of the things we need to do is stop negotiating bad trade deals that are one-sided," Reuther said.

Stabenow said she had signed a letter opposing a free-trade accord being negotiated with South Korea, which imposes higher tariffs on auto imports. "I sent a letter along with colleagues from Michigan saying do not do that agreement unless you fix autos."

You can reach Christine Tierney at (313) 222-1463 or

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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