The strike of 80,000 Chrysler Corp. production workers that began this morning in the United States and Canada reflects the turbulent changes and uncertain future confronting the shrinking American automobile industry, according to industry analysts.
Chrysler, rebounding strongly from the brink of bankruptcy, is seeking to complete its transformation into a tougher, streamlined competitor that can take on Japanese imports in the coming decades. Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca and his management "have already had a brush with death, and they remember it well," said David Cole, University of Michigan automotive studies specialist. "They still have a sense of urgency, and they remember that making autos is a tough game," he added. See related story, Page E3.
But the No. 3 auto maker is colliding with a 1 million-member union whose members are angry that they haven't fully shared the benefits of the Chrysler recovery and fearful that the new, leaner company -- which has cut more than 60,000 jobs in a decade -- will cast their jobs aside in the name of productivity.
"We are the reason this company bounced back," said Louis Ridley, 58, a torch solderer for 37 years.
"This job can break you. I stand. I bend. I pull. I yank. I hit," said Judy Brewer, a 17-year veteran inspector. "Seventy-five cars a minute, baby . . . and they give the bonuses and the money to the people who never even lay a hand on a car. Is that fair?"
The strikes by the separate U.S. and Canadian wings of the United Auto Workers shut down 45 of Chrysler's 50 plants in 15 states and Ontario. They could cost the auto maker an estimated $50 million a week.
Negotiations resumed today, but no progress was reported. Union president Owen Bieber said "a lot of problems remain."
Thousands of angry auto workers in Detroit and St. Louis walked off their jobs Tuesday night, even before the strike announcement, carrying signs demanding that their now-profitable employer repay them for the $1.1 billion in concessions they made to help Chrysler survive.
The UAW is pushing for job-security provisions and partial compensation for the sacrifices union members made during Chrysler's 1979-82 brush with bankruptcy that led to a massive government bailout.
Chrysler management, however, is strongly resisting what it sees as potentially burdensome demands and outdated work practices that it must change to cut the Japanese labor-cost advantage estimated at about $2,000 per car.
"This is a strike which never should have happened," said Chrysler vice president Thomas W. Miner. "It is tragic . . . . This whole company is paralyzed . . . and we bleed to death when we are on strike."
The UAW is demanding "parity" with contracts at General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., arguing that Chrysler's spectacular recovery to record-high profit levels enable it to return to the 30-year tradition of pattern bargaining with GM and Ford.
GM and Ford workers receive slightly higher wages than Chrysler's $13.23 hourly average and have pension benefits roughly 10 percent higher. GM and Ford workers also have profit-sharing and job-security provisions that Chrysler workers lack.
The other major fear among auto workers stems from "job-combination," the company goal of having a more flexible work force by sharply reducing the number of job classifications.
Chrysler has 500 job titles and seeks to have fewer than 15 production job titles, along the lines of Japanese management practices. Unions oppose this because it allows firms to lay off employes in one classification and shift their work to others.
"This strike is part of the transformation of this industry, getting from where it was in the past to where it has to go," said the University of Michigan's Cole.
Cole and Arvid Jouppi, a longtime Detroit industry analyst, also said a Chrysler strike was almost inevitable because rank-and-file union members were angered that the company had not been more generous after it rebounded to nearly $4 billion profit in an 18-month period.
"They had to vent their anger. They've got to blow off some steam," Jouppi said, "But they will return to business."
Both analysts said they did not think that the strike would alter the growing trend toward labor-management cooperation characterized by developments such as the GM's "Saturn" project in Tennessee where the company and union will share decision-making.
UAW leaders "recognize they are in a difficult and serious international competitive environment and must make changes," Cole said. "Labor leadership understands this well, but they have difficulty communicating this to rank and file."
On the picket lines today, emotions ran high. At Detroit's massive Jefferson Avenue plant, where 5,000 men and women produce K-cars and New Yorkers at a rate of 75 per hour, much attention focused on the multimillion-dollar income of Chairman Iacocca and other executives.
"I think it's just greed," said Ridley, the torch solderer. "They are taking these big salaries, and they keep squeezing the little people." Ridley said he earns about $500 a week and enjoys his job, "but I'm ready to be real stubborn and stay on strike. We all are."
The strike was necessary "because we've got to find a way to save our jobs," said Sam Weary, a 37-year Chrysler veteran who is an officer at Detroit's UAW Local 212.
"We used to represent 12,500 people. Now it's 3,000," said Weary, a former welder. "They're constantly outsourcing our work all the time, and we don't know where it will stop, or when."