Sunday, April 01, 2007

UAW members battle low morale

Wednesday, March 28, 2007
UAW members battle low morale
As Gettelfinger vows to defend wages and benefits, workers fear what Big 3 will do during negotiations.
Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- Weariness appears to have set in among even the most faithful members of the United Auto Workers, who say aggressive cost-cutting by their employers is sapping morale and making it tougher to carry out the union's mission.

"We've been fighting for the same issues throughout my 22-year career as a UAW member," said Larry Bates of UAW Local 111, which represents workers at a former Visteon Corp. factory in Indianapolis that is now part of a holding company run by Ford Motor Co., Visteon's former parent.

"But the companies have changed the way they do business," he said. "I'm grateful for the UAW because it's getting more difficult to trust companies."

Bates was among several hundred members of his UAW local who took a cash buyout or early retirement, an increasingly common scenario as Detroit automakers and suppliers cut jobs, decreasing the ranks of active UAW members.

Bates is among 1,500 delegates meeting this week at Cobo Center for a two-day UAW bargaining convention that ends today. Delegates are expected to approve a 103-page proposed resolution that will serve as the union's guiding principles during future contract talks, including negotiations this summer with Detroit's struggling Big Three automakers.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, who has been criticized for being too willing to grant concessions as the automakers restructure, set a fiery tone during his opening speech Tuesday, vowing to defend wages, health care benefits and pensions. The union will fight at the bargaining table, in the courts and, "if need be, on the picket line," he said.

"We will do what we have to do Collective bargaining is not collective begging."

While many delegates say they were encouraged by Gettelfinger's speech -- and few turned out to support a pre-convention protest by the UAW dissident group Soldiers of Solidarity -- many also openly expressed anxiety.

"People are scared, and the companies know they have that power over workers," said Chuck Roose, 49, a UAW Local 412 delegate who represents 600 designers and other skilled professionals at DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group in Auburn Hills.

"Companies are creating a disposable work force by pushing us out and giving the work to non-union contractors or workers," he said.

Roose was among a group of delegates representing a number of companies and UAW locals across the country who are worried that the use of often lower-paid temporary and contract workers will only increase at their facilities.

"It's a different world, it's a different union," said Zane Payne, a General Motors Corp. retiree with UAW Local 10 in Doraville, Ga., where GM is closing a factory as part of its restructuring.

Payne said this year's convention feels different from previous ones because all three Detroit carmakers are entrenched in turnarounds and hoping to wrest concessions from the union. Suppliers are struggling as well.

Delphi Corp. retiree Michael Balls said the UAW should have fought harder to protect jobs after the supplier filed for bankruptcy in October 2005. The union subsequently agreed to a deal to offer Delphi workers cash buyouts or early retirement to help trim thousands of jobs. Balls, a skilled trades worker, retired earlier than would have been ideal because he felt his job wasn't secure. "They should have stuck it out and fought harder," he said.

Some delegates feel sections of the proposed bargaining resolution are too soft.

"We need to have a much stronger stance," said Daniel G. Bennett of UAW Local 122, which represents Chrysler workers at a stamping plant in Twinsburg, Ohio.

He doesn't want to see two-tier wages, which the UAW has agreed to for new hires at some auto suppliers, become standard practice at auto assembly plants.

"If we are equal," he said, "then we are equal across the board."

Separately, Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove said he will meet with Gettelfinger Thursday at UAW headquarters in Detroit. Hargrove said he initiated the meeting to discuss challenges facing domestic automakers in the intensely competitive North American market.

Hargrove expects Chrysler's future to be discussed. Hargrove and Gettelfinger have said they oppose a sale, which has been a possibility since DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche said that all options are on the table for the automaker's money-losing U.S. unit.

"I don't anticipate a common strategy, but who knows what will happen?" Hargrove said of the pending meeting.

Hargrove also said his assistant, Bob Chernecki, will meet with DaimlerChrysler's German union representatives next week in Stuttgart for a similar session.

Detroit News staff writers Sharon Terlep and Josee Valcourt contributed. You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 or

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