Financially troubled Chrysler Corp. becomes the testing ground today for a bid by the United Auto Workers to break new ground in labor-management relations by winning representation on the company's board of directors.
The proposal will be on the bargaining table as company and union begin intensive talks to wrap up Big Three auto negotiations. At General Motors and Ford, new three-year contracts have been reached with no action on the directors issue.
Inclusion of workers in corporate decision-making, called "co-determination," is widespread in Western Europe. But it has failed thus far to take root in the United States, where unions tend to favor more of an adversary role in dealing with employers.
The UAW itself has had mixed feelings about venturing too far from this traditional role. It first put the board representation issue on the Chrysler bargaining table three years ago after the company offered such rights to workers at its British plants, eventually abandoning the proposal in the final crush of contract demands.
Now the issue assumes greater importance in light of Chrysler's need for economic concessions from the union. The company needs them to alleviate its cash-flow problems, both because of direct savings and because such an agreement might help convince Congress that the company has earned federal aid by virtue of self-sacrifice from top to bottom.
It is also important for the UAW, which prides itself on setting bargaining precedents, to come away from the Chrysler talks with something substantial to show as a trade-off for concessions on wages and benefits. Compared to the money gains -- roughly 33 percent over three years -- won at General Motors and Ford, the union's concessions to Chrysler are expected to be large.
The demand for corporate board representation, along with some union role at lower management levels, is expected to gain in priority if the union agrees, subject to federal guarantees, to loan some of its pension funds to Chrysler. This reportedly has been suggested by the Treasury Department, and the UAW has indicated willingness to explore it in the negotiations.
In its initial proposal to Chrysler last July when the Big Three bargaining started, the UAW said it was not seeking a dominant role but rather to assure that "the interests of workers would be put up front, side by side with the economic well-being of the corporation, when decisions are made." s