Members of the United Auto Workers union voted overwhelmingly yesterday to reject a potentially disastrous strike against the Chrysler Corp., which they had earlier helped to rescue from bankruptcy.
The final tally, announced last night at UAW headquarters in Detroit, was about 70 percent in favor of staying on the job and resuming talks after the Christmas holidays.
UAW President Douglas Fraser told reporters that he does not think the decision to keep working will weaken the union's position. "We have the ability to strike and the wherewithal to strike. They know we can shut Chrysler Corp. down," he said.
Looking to the winter negotiations, he said he thinks the union can win a better deal than the one workers rejected earlier.
"I think we still can do better than we did in September, even if the economy does not improve. We can't continue this way. Down the road, as the economy improves, Chrysler workers have to receive a greater share of equity," he said.
Balloting in the unusual referendum began before dawn at plants and union halls across the country. About 36,000 of the 43,200 active Chrysler workers voted, the union said. About 5,000 of the 40,000 on indefinite layoff also were eligible to vote.
The final vote was 25,056 to 11,589 against a strike, UAW officials said.
Workers were not happy about either of the two options their leadership had put on the ballot: to strike Chrysler at 10 a.m. next Monday or to continue working under the terms of the contract that expired on Sept. 14, with talks to start anew next January.
Thomas W. Miner, vice president of industrial relations for Chrysler, said the company was "gratified . . . . We believe a strike against the company would have had serious consequences and would have jeopardized the jobs of all Chrysler employes."
Union officials had said in recent days that the workers' growing militancy was being tempered by the cold prospect of facing Christmas and beyond on $65-a-week strike pay and by the warnings of union leaders that a long strike now could cripple the company.
"They did not want to give up their holiday pay and go home and see their kids" without the money to buy them Christmas gifts, Dan Hayes, president of an Atlanta local, said after his members voted narrowly against the strike.
Harley Mylane, an 18-year Chrysler worker helping to supervise the voting at an engine plant near Detroit, said, "It's one thing to go out on strike and know you're going to get something, but to walk out for two or four or six months and maybe get less than you started with -- there's no point to it."
"You can't bite the hand that feeds you," said William Mohler, a member of a local in New Castle, Ind.
The UAW workers recently rejected, by 70 percent to 30 percent, a tentative contract recommended by Fraser and other union leaders as the best deal they could get after intensive negotiations.
The talks broke off Oct. 18 when Chrysler said flatly that "there simply is no more money" for the immediate pay increase demanded by the union.
In an action likened by one worker to "Pontius Pilate washing his hands," the UAW leadership last week came up with the idea of yesterday's poll of the rank and file. The leadership's customary next step would have been to call a strike.
But Fraser said he considered that action so dangerous that he wanted to make certain it was what the members really wanted. There was widespread agreement, expressed by many workers and union officials, that the workers did not intend that their rejection of the tentative contract amounted to an automatic pro-strike vote.
Instead, according to those interviewed last week, the rejection reflected pent-up anger and frustration among workers who believe the struggling company is taking advantage of them.
To help Chrysler survive, they have accepted cuts in pay and benefits worth more than $1 billion in the last three years. They have trouble paying their bills, they say, because they remain locked into their old mortage payments and other financial commitments.
Chrysler workers, who average $9.07 an hour in wages, earn $2.60 an hour less than their counterparts at General Motors and Ford.
Many do not believe the claims of the company and of their leaders that Chrysler, despite its progress in accumulating a $1 billion nest egg although it has lost $145 million in car sales this year, cannot afford to pay more.
The union reportedly has a $485 million strike fund. "It seems like the workers could take a strike longer than Chrysler could," said Kenny Reynolds, president of Local 1248 in suburban Detroit. "It's a reversal from the past. But it looks like it isn't doing us much good."