The executive board of the United Auto Workers union reversed itself yesterday and opened the door to early contract talks with U.S. automotive manufacturers.
The board voted 25 to 1 to recommend early negotiations, a proposal the UAW leaders rejected last March 19.
The recommendation now goes to the union's bargaining councils--largely autonomous groups of locally elected UAW officials representing workers at specific companies. The councils may approve, reject or table the recommendation. There were no council meetings scheduled and no indication of which way the councils would go.
"They'll open negotiations if they decide that's the intelligent thing to do," UAW President Douglas A. Fraser said in Detroit after the board's vote. Negotiations originally were scheduled to begin next June to replace a current, three-year national contract that expires Sept. 14.
Fraser said the board's action represented an accommodation with reality more than it did a political retreat.
"We are not backing down at all. Times have changed. The situation in the industry isdesperate," Fraser said. "Because of the deterioration of the economy, we decided it was no longer satisfactory to have one rigid policy. A rigid policy doesn't make sense anymore."
GM and Ford, respectively the nation's first and second-largest automakers, have pressured the UAW for early contract talks and wage and benefit concessions. GM, with 99,000 workers on indefinite layoff, and Ford with 48,700 indefinitely furloughed employes, have slashed their production rates and temporarily closed some assembly plants in a desperate effort to reduce their share of the $1.4 billion in U.S. automotive industry losses this year.
Officials at the two companies said yesterday that they welcomed the UAW board's recommendation, but salted their comments with caveats that failure to start talking soon could lead to more layoffs.
"We hope the UAW GM council will respond in a positive manner," Alfred S. Warren, GM vice president in charge of industrial relations, said.
"The sooner we can sit down together, the better the chances of saving American jobs. This certainly is a step in the right direction, and we're hopeful that we can make real progress," Warren said.
Peter J. Pestillo, Ford's vice president for labor relations, said he viewed the executive board's vote "as a preliminary, but potentially positive step."
He said the company would like to replace the existing agreement with a new, long-term contract. He did not specify what he meant by "long-term." But industry officials, confident that they could get a less costly wage package from the UAW in the current market, have made no secret that they are looking for a contract that will last beyond the traditional three years.
UAW leaders, clinging to the hope that the domestic auto market will rebound, want a contract covering a shorter term than usual.
Since 1969, the union has given up $1.068 billion in wages and benefits to help the Chrysler Corp, the nation's third largest automaker, avoid bankruptcy. UAW locals at Ford plants in Monroe and Sterling Heights, Mich., and Cleveland, Ohio, have agreed to cost-saving work rule changes this year to help those plants stay open.
International Harvester, which manufactures farm implements, and the American Motors Corp., which has received UAW wage breaks in the past, also are looking for relief.
AMC, for example, recently proposed that its hourly workers invest 10 percent of their wages and benefits in the company to help it raise $1 billion, which AMC officials say they need to retool and become more competitive with foreign automakers.
But local UAW officials representing workers at several AMC plants last week rejected the company's proposal, citing the union's general policy against contract reopenings.
David Mitchell, a UAW spokesman, said yesterday that the board's vote "creates flexibility" for the UAW-AMC bargaining council and other units to reopen their contracts and consider those kinds of proposals. But he said the companies "are going to have to make a pretty good case" to win the councils' support.