DETROIT, OCT. 6 -- General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers are close to a new agreement that resembles the precedent-setting, job-security contract signed this week by the union and Ford Motor Co.
UAW and GM sources said today that steady progress is being made in the talks, which are being conducted without the pressure of a strike deadline.
Sources on both sides said that if negotiations continue at their current swift pace, a tentative agreement could be reached by the weekend without a walkout by the company's 335,000 active UAW-represented workers.
According to several sources, Alfred S. Warren Jr., GM's vice president for industrial relations, is pushing for a Friday settlement, which he is said to believe is possible.
"If it goes beyond Friday, we could have some problems. But we'd still have Saturday and Sunday to work with, because most of our plants are down on those days and that cuts the need for a strike deadline," one GM source said.
Talks at both GM and Ford were aimed at replacing three-year contracts that expired at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14. The union chose Ford as its target company in the dual-barreled negotiations, thus putting the GM talks on hold until Ford matters were settled.
Ford and the union on Sept. 17 reached a tentative agreement that attempts to ensure the jobs of that company's 104,000 UAW-represented workers over the next three years. The union's 200-member Ford bargaining council overwhelmingly approved the agreement one day later. By Sept. 30, 72 percent of the affected Ford workers had voted to ratify the pact.
The Ford agreement was signed Monday at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, an occasion marked by UAW President Owen Bieber's prediction that his union would win a similar contract at GM.
Bieber had said the same thing two weeks earlier after completing negotiations at Ford. But his comments then engendered guffaws on Wall Street and a flurry of shaking heads in GM's executives suites.
GM is too different from Ford to accept a contract that greatly restricts layoffs, limits the use of outside suppliers and places a moratorium on plant closings, detractors said.
Ford, with $3 billion in profit in the first six months of 1987, is on a roll. GM, with $1.9 billion in earnings in the same period and declining market share, is in a slump.
Ford, with its streamlined production work force, down 45 percent to 104,000 people since 1978, can afford a $500-million job-security program. GM, almost as bloated as it was during the recession of 1979-1982, is in a far weaker position to offer the same contract, critics said.
But, so far, the strife that was supposed to mark the talks between GM and the UAW seems virtually nonexistent.
"GM read the Ford contract," one UAW source said. "There is a lot of leeway in there for GM to tailor the agreement to its needs."
And tailoring is exactly what has been happening in the various bargaining subcommittee meetings running day and night here, GM sources said.
"We're not kidding each other. The UAW understands our problems, and we understand their need for job security," one GM source said. Both sides are compromising in an effort to satisfy those mutual needs, the source said.
For example, GM initially demanded that the UAW accept a two-tier wage system in the company's component operations, where a lot of work is done that could be done at lower costs outside the GM empire.
In general, under the GM proposal, UAW workers in the components groups would have received lower pay than the company's final assembly workers, who get total average hourly compensation of $25.10.
But UAW leaders rejected that proposal as setting bad precedent, and suggested that GM could better reduce costs by working with the union to increase efficiency.
GM withdrew the two-tier pay proposal, and is working with the union on a plan to reduce job classifications and use other measures to cut costs with minimum layoffs, sources said.
The Ford proposal allows temporary layoffs when sales of domestic models decline -- as long as the drop is not caused by sales of vehicles made abroad but sold by Ford in the United States. That loophole, plus various arrangements under which Ford is allowed to buy out jobs, could also be used to GM's advantage, GM sources said.
"There are a lot of ways that we can cut costs without resorting to layoffs," one GM source said.
Other company officials are less sanguine, however. They worry that GM might have lost the upper hand in the talks, because Ford settled first with a contract that won widespread acceptance from the rank-and-file.
"I hope we don't just go along with everything that Ford did, and get ourselves into deeper trouble," one GM official said.
But UAW and GM sources close to the negotiations, in which important health-and-benefits matters mostly have been put to rest, expressed confidence that they will produce an agreement that will not injure the company or union.
"We understand what the problems are," one UAW official said. "No one wants to do anything to make matters worse.