United Auto Workers leaders decided yesterday to have Chrysler workers vote next Tuesday on whether they want to strike or simply recess talks with the number three auto maker until after Christmas.
Chrysler has warned that a prolonged strike could drive it out of business. But it also says it cannot afford the raise its workers now want after their $1 billion in "givebacks" over the past three years to keep the company from going under.
If the vote goes against a strike, workers would stay on the job under the terms of the expired contract until bargaining resumes Jan. 1. UAW President Douglas Fraser said he hopes that by that time "the nation's economy will have improved" and Chrysler will be able to offer more.
If the vote favors a strike, it would begin at 10 a.m. Nov. 1, a week from Monday.
The results of the vote should be known by Tuesday night, according to Fraser. He said the ballot will go out to workers in the next day or so along with a letter of explanation. The ballots are to be turned in at the plants Tuesday.
"We want the Chrysler workers to express their opinion before we take this very important, perhaps critical and dangerous step," Fraser said. He did not consider the recent rejection of a tentative accord by the membership equal to an authorization to strike, he said.
Negotiations broke off Monday after Chrysler refused the union's demand for an immediate pay increase.
Larry Leach, president of UAW Local 1264 in Sterling Heights, Mich., announced the decision to put the two options to a vote. It was reached by the UAW's 150-member Chrysler council, made up of local union officials from around the country.
Chrysler officials had no immediate comment except to say they would "wait to hear from Doug Fraser."
By a ratio of 70 to 30 percent last week, workers rejected a tentative proposal recommended by the UAW leadership, primarily because it lacked any immediate pay increase. They had been encouraged to expect more by Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, officials said. In an appeal aimed at lenders, he had publicized the company's recovering fortunes, including its $1 billion cash reserve.
Some 43,200 Chrysler employes are affected, plus 41,900 laid off by the company.
Delaying a strike will not strengthen Chrysler's hand by allowing it to stockpile cars, Fraser said. "They have cars stockpiled now."
Auto industry analysts said a strike of up to two weeks would not hurt Chrysler, which has a 70-day supply of cars on hand, according to Ward's Automotive Reports. A longer strike would pinch Chrysler's finances and curtail sales.
The union, which has built up a multimillion-dollar strike fund, also could sustain a short walkout, Ward's reported. The union's options included striking, returning to the bargaining table, possibly under a strike deadline, or resubmitting the defeated tentative proposal.
However, Fraser rejected the idea of giving the first contract proposal another try. The UAW leadership, he said, "must abide by the will of the majority."
The rejected contract was the first since 1979 at Chrysler that did not contain concessions, Fraser said. It tied wage increases to Chrysler profits starting in December and also provided for reinstatement of cost-of-living increases.
The workers had made concessions amounting to $1 billion between 1979 and 1981 to help save the company from bankruptcy.
Chrysler workers average $9.07 an hour (plus benefits), or about $2.60 less than their counterparts at General Motors and Ford.