United Auto Worker officials representing union workers at General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. will meet here today to decide whether to resume negotiations on new emergency contracts with the two auto companies.
The union bargaining committee meetings are critical both for the UAW leadership and for the auto companies, which are pushing for unprecedented cuts in labor costs to make their cars more competitive with imports from Japan. The talks with GM broke off Wednesday with the two sides at odds on fringe benefit concessions and job protection issues. There had been little progress in the Ford talks, and they, too, were recessed pending today's meeting.
UAW President Douglas Fraser said the decisions on whether to continue the negotiations rest with the 300-member GM bargaining council and the 225-member Ford council, meeting separately here.
However, Fraser appears anxious to continue the negotiations because of the plight of the auto industry and the certainty of more layoffs if the negotiations end in failure.
"You have to ask yourself the question, 'Are you better off going forward now or it is better to wait until September?' " when the current UAW contracts with GM and Ford expire, Fraser said.
GM has its reasons for an early settlement. Because the company and the UAW already have agreed that any labor-cost savings resulting from the current talks will be passed back to customers as lower car prices, GM says it is losing sales during the negotiating period because would-be buyers are waiting to see what happens.
To counteract that problem, GM Marketing Vice President Robert D. Burger announced late Thursday that any price cuts resulting from current negotiations would apply retroactively to Jan. 13. Customers should "make the best deal they can" with dealers now, GM advised, and then the company will pass along whatever further rebate is due if a UAW-GM agreement is reached.
In another unprecedented step to boost sales, GM yesterday ran full-page newspaper advertisements noting that its large cars had ranked at the top in a safety study released recently by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
GM, which never has "advertised" safety before, reprinted the institute's list of 36 U.S. and foreign cars comparing how frequently they are involved in accidents that result in injuries. The ratings are based on the number of insurance injury claims in 1978-80 for each model compared with the numbers of each car insured by the companies participating in the study.
The ad noted that 15 of the 19 highest-ranking cars are GM cars. Although GM didn't call attention to it, the list also shows that 13 of the 17 cars with lowest rankings are Japanese-made. The major safety edge for U.S.-built cars is their greater size and weight than the Japanese cars.
Neither GM nor UAW spokesmen would comment officially on published reports that the two are close to an agreement and the break-off in negotiations Wednesday was intended for dramatic effect in large part. Privately, a GM official indicated that serious differences remain. Auto industry analysts believe that both sides want an agreement if one is possible, and some observers speculated that Fraser broke off the talks Wednesday hoping to build stronger unity within his union by increasing the sense of urgency.
The gaps between the initial positions of GM and the union were very large--the company asked for nonwage concessions in paid time off and fringe benefits worth $5 an hour, a quarter of the $20 an hour in pay and benefits received by the average UAW member at GM. Fraser called this offer "outrageous and unacceptable" and has said that a cut of $2.50 an hour would be "too high," as well. How far the gap has closed still isn't known.
Ford's proposals generally differ from GM's, and the Ford negotiations are still in an early stage.
Fraser faces dissident local union leaders in both the Ford and GM bargaining units, however, who oppose any concessions.