Emergency contract talks between the United Auto Workers union and General Motors Corp. could resume as early as next week, following what one union official called "a fairly overwhelming shift" in rank-and-file sentiment toward wage and benefit concessions.
The union's leaders said yesterday they are calling a meeting of their GM bargaining council next week to consider renewing negotiations with the company.
The 300-member council will meet Thursday in Dearborn, Mich. Both company and union officials are confident that the council will give UAW President Douglas A. Fraser the "strong mandate" he says he needs to go back to the bargaining table.
"The news is encouraging," GM spokesman Bruce G. McDonald said. "This puts us one step closer" to resuming talks, he said.
GM Chairman Roger B. Smith has said since Jan. 28, when the second round of UAW/GM talks collapsed, that he would be willing to bargain with the union whenever the union was ready.
The second set of talks was foredoomed by the bargaining council's relatively narrow vote of 57 percent to 43 percent on Jan. 23 to follow up a first round of bargaining that stopped Jan. 20. Union spokesmen said yesterday that Fraser won't return to the bargaining table unless the next council vote is substantially higher.
The vote in January reflected deep divisions within the council and the union's general membership on the issue of trading pay concessions for job security.
Shortly before midnight on Jan. 28, after a series of lengthy talks, a bedraggled Fraser admitted that dissension weakened the UAW's clout at the bargaining table. "It just didn't come together," he said.
In that moment's depression, Fraser said GM would have to wait until regularly scheduled bargaining in July to try to win the concessions it says it needs to stem operating losses and become more competitive with foreign car manufacturers.
But Owen Bieber, director of the UAW's GM division, yesterday said the union's subsequent agreement to sacrifice up to $1 billion in benefits to help Ford Motor Co. has changed the atmosphere for bargaining with GM. That change was verified this week in a survey of the union's 160 GM locals, Bieber and UAW spokesman Don Stillman said.
"The fairly overwhelming sentiment reported back to us was that GM workers want to see what can be done to address the plant closings and shift cuts" made by the company since Jan. 28, Stillman said.
GM closed seven of its plants, swelling to 145,000 the number of UAW workers it has laid off during the current recession. That leaves 325,000 UAW members at GM.
As a result, Bieber said yesterday that any new talks with the company will have to involve discussions about job security, layoffs, plant closings and the use of outside contractors--foreign and domestic--to produce GM parts.
Negotiations with the company should resume "as quickly as is practicable" if the council approves a return to the table, Bieber said.
He has a point. The value of any "emergency" concessions agreement decreases or increases with the length of time it is in force.
The UAW's current three-year contract with the company expires Sept. 14, some 2 1/2 months after regularly scheduled bargaining. But GM says it needs labor cost savings now.
In regularly scheduled bargaining the company, already suffering losses, could wait a little longer until the current agreement expires. Then GM could make unilateral demands for givebacks, leaving the union with the unwanted option of calling a risky strike, Fraser said.