Workers At GM Walk Off The Job

By Sholnn Freeman and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

DETROIT, Sept. 24 -- The autoworkers union called its first national strike in more than three decades against General Motors on Monday, sending thousands of workers streaming from plants across the country even as both sides prepared to resume negotiations on a new contract.

The strike came on the 10th day of talks between the United Auto Workers union and GM as the two sides attempt to negotiate a new three-year deal. A prolonged strike could cripple an already troubled automaker, which earlier this year lost its 76-year reign as the world's largest carmaker to Toyota.

GM and the UAW are haggling over wages, job security for U.S. workers worried about jobs moving overseas, and the company's continued investment in new products and job creation. Another substantial item, transferring the management of $50 billion in retiree health-care benefits from GM to the union, is not a sticking point, the union said.

"The No. 1 issue here is job security," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said at a news conference Monday. "This strike is in no way about" the retirees' health-care benefits.

GM spokeswoman Michelle Bunker said: "We are disappointed in the UAW's decision to call a national strike. The bargaining involves complex, difficult issues that affect the job security of our U.S. workforce and the long-term viability of the company."

Despite the mass walkout, some experts did not expect the strike to drag on.

"My own opinion is the strike will be a short one, but time will tell," said David B. Healy, an auto industry analyst with Burnham Securities. "I think it's a little bit of heat just to get GM off the dime. But it lets the workers let off steam and it lets him [Gettelfinger] prove that he hasn't given away the store."

Some of GM's 73,000 union workers disagreed.

"It could be a long strike," said Mark Schindler, a member of Local 659 in Flint, Mich. The UAW's GM workers are seasoned strikers, with a 1998 walkout to its credit that temporarily shut down the automaker. "We've got the most prior experience against management," Schindler said. The strike in 1998 was limited to two plants in Flint and cost GM billions of dollars in income and halted production for 53 days.

GM and the UAW appear to be far apart on job guarantees. The union wants GM to commit to maintaining current production levels in the United States. With the company moving more of its work overseas, the union wants assurances that GM would introduce new products at U.S. plants even if it phases out vehicles being built at them now.

Gettelfinger said yesterday that GM would not budge on the issue.

Gary Chaison, a labor professor at Clark University, said the UAW fears becoming weaker if it allows Detroit automakers to keep moving production overseas.

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