CHRYSLER workers have now voted against going on strike by the same lopsided margin that they voted against a new contract two weeks ago. If you find these on-again-off-again negotiations confusing, remember that auto workers and managers are relearning a long-forgotten skill: how to bargain in good faith for a settlement that serves not only the immediate interests of both sides but their shared interest in the long-term health of their industry.
It has been many years since contract renegotiations in the automobile industry represented a true collision of interests. Both sides have found it far more convenient to avoid the disruption and loss of income associated with a prolonged strike. With an implicit understanding among the big manufacturers that price competition among similar models was to be avoided, worker demands -- and generous executive compensation packages -- could be accommodated by passing higher prices along to the consumer.
International competition has now ended this mutual back-scratching arrangement -- in the auto industry and in steel and other basic industries. Both management and labor now face the unaccustomed requirement to negotiate deals that mean real sacrifices for both sides. For management, that means building into the calculus not only short-term sales, profits and dividends, but also long-term reinvestment requirements. It means developing worker understanding of, and trust in, these calculations.
With the very survival of their jobs at stake, you might have expected the Chrysler workers to be more accommodating about the contract deal their leaders negotiated. But many workers continue to feel betrayed and suspicious. With no tradition of worker involvement in management decisions, labor unions in this country have had little role except to push for more. When their demands are granted, workers assume that management has taken into account the company's need for investment to preserve future competitiveness. When that turns out not to be the case -- as it has in the past -- workers are suspicious about whether they're getting the full facts about the future.
That's why the stop-and-start nature of the Chrysler negotiations is understandable and perhaps unavoidable. By turning down both the original contract and the strike, the workers have given the company more time to make its case and the union more time to make sure it's getting a deal it can live with. These negotiations are do-or-die for Chrysler. But many other companies are watching them, too. Their success may have more to do with the future health of the economy than the fights over deficits and monetary targets that now fill the headlines.