To UAW Leaders, the Pain Is Necessary

Peggy Mertz, here with cook Evangelos Batsios, manages a diner across from a GM plant in Flint. Her business is down markedly.
Peggy Mertz, here with cook Evangelos Batsios, manages a diner across from a GM plant in Flint. Her business is down markedly. (By Dana Hedgpeth -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Hedgpeth and Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 28, 2009

FLINT, Mich., May 27 -- More than 100 United Auto Workers leaders sat inside Local 659's low-slung brick union hall on Van Slyke Road on Wednesday, listening to how their union and jobs could be affected under a new agreement as General Motors moves toward bankruptcy.

"I'm not going to stand up here and tell you that it's a great agreement," said Duane Zuckschwerdt, who represents 13,000 GM workers in Flint and Lansing. "Anytime you have to give concessions, it's not. But it's like a pacemaker. It provides a lifeline to the membership so we can exist."

A bankruptcy reorganization plan negotiated with the U.S. government requires a new deal with GM's union. GM's roughly 60,000 factory workers are to vote Wednesday and Thursday on the agreement. It would give the union a stake in GM of 17.5 percent that could grow to 20 percent, smaller than workers had hoped. And the 14-page summary of the deal outlines cuts in some health-care benefits and the loss of cost-of-living increases, performance bonuses and some holiday pay.

Gregg Shotwell, leader of the Soldiers of Solidarity, a UAW dissident group, has complained about a short paragraph that would forfeit the union's right to strike until 2015.

"The UAW is a toothless lion," he said.

Zuckschwerdt, director of the UAW's Region 1C, warned his lieutenants that the alternative to concessions could be worse.

"If we don't successfully pass this agreement and they file for bankruptcy, it puts it in the hands of a judge," he said. "Do we love this agreement? No. I am sad to say there are people who will lose their jobs."

On Monday, the Canadian Auto Workers approved concessions of their own, but Wednesday, GM's bondholders rejected a 10 percent stake in the company in return for the $27 billion they are owed, making bankruptcy virtually inevitable. Still, union leaders expect better treatment in court by agreeing to help GM cut costs.

The past makes this moment a hard one for Local 659. The union hall, now between a bingo hall and a liquor store, occupies a historic spot, across the street from a major GM plant. This, as a sign in front of the union hall says, is "Home of the 1937 Sit-Downers." That refers to when auto workers sat in their factories here for 44 days, withstanding assault until they won sole bargaining rights for their union.

This time, they were arrayed against a fiercer opponent, top UAW leaders say. They were dealing with not just GM executives at the bargaining table but the federal government, too. And Uncle Sam wasn't leaving them much wiggle room.

"It used to be you dealt with one party -- the auto manufacturer," said Cal Rapson, UAW vice president. "You would negotiate tradeoffs, but this was a whole other matter. You had the federal government at the table.

"We really worked to protect our interest," he said. "If we hadn't, these workers would have had a hell of a lot less. Yes, it was ugly. Yes, it was hard. This was a matter of what we had to do to survive. . . . We're coming out of this so we can have some jobs. It is not the type of negotiation you come away from feeling good."

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