Chrysler deal faces rocky road to union approval

ByTim Higgins, Detroit Free Press

DETROIT -- The Chrysler-United Auto Workers deal now facing ratification votes around the country drew strong initial opposition from the union's national bargaining committee, The Detroit Free Press has learned.

The nine-member committee, when first presented with the deal, unanimously rejected it, forcing the top UAW leadership to apply pressure on the committee to bring about approval, according to Shawn Fain, a skilled trades committeeman at Local 1166.

Fain told his members in a letter, which was posted on the Kokomo, Ind., local's website, that the national committee had to take four votes before UAW President Ron Gettelfinger was able to muster enough support for the agreement.

The final tally for the deal, which was reached Oct. 10, was 8-1 in favor. The committee's chair, Bill Parker, president of Local 1700 in Sterling Heights, led the opposition during a meeting of local leaders last Monday, arguing the tentative agreement lacked sufficient future- product guarantees.

So far, the agreement has received a rocky reception among the rank and file, who have begun voting in some locals. Four or five union locals were holding ratification votes Friday, but the results were not available at press time.

The first tests of the deal came back mixed Thursday. Local 136, which represents workers in Chrysler's St. Louis-area pickup plant, rejected the contract late Thursday, with 80% of members opposed. Local 72, which represents workers at Chrysler's smaller Kenosha, Wis., engine plant, gave it 78% approval.

Harley Shaiken, a labor expert from the University of California at Berkeley, said he was surprised by the level of opposition at the Missouri local, but cautioned against reading too much into one defeat. "That's a very strong negative reaction, even understanding the context," he said.

The contract needs majority approval of all members voting to be ratified.

Leadership tries to rally support

The UAW leadership is hustling to line up support. In a letter to local leaders, UAW Vice President General Holiefield called for "all appointed union representatives" to "stand in solidarity in support of this tentative agreement."

He said the deal provides unprecedented gains and protections for all workers. "Educate yourself on the contents contained in the highlights and seek out workers to show your support," he wrote in the letter dated Oct. 17.

The UAW has told its members that the agreement includes a commitment by Chrysler to keep operating all but five facilities: the Delaware assembly plant; Detroit Axle, which is being replaced by a Marysville facility; a Fontana, Calif., parts center; the Sterling Heights Vehicle Test Center, and Conner Avenue Assembly in Detroit.

In addition, the automaker has identified more than $15 billion in potential U.S. investments and committed to continue production at six UAW assembly plants.

"Our investment in facilities has been very aggressive and looking toward the future," Chrysler spokesman Mike Aberlich said. "Out of our 59 facilities which are represented by the UAW, we have some kind of commitment in investment for 55 of them through the life of the contract."

The 4-year agreement includes shifting Chrysler's estimated $19-billion retiree health care obligation to a special trust under the auspices of the union at a $9 billion savings. It also creates a two-tier wage system in which new hires to so-called non- core jobs will be paid about half as much as traditional workers.

Approval seen as death sentence

Fain, the skilled trades committeeman at Local 1166, told his members that he opposed the agreement in the council meeting last Monday. He gave them a part of the speech that he said he delivered: "Two-tier wages have no place in this union. ... If you vote for this agreement, you might as well get a gun and shoot yourself in the head..."

Retired UAW members Sam Johnson, formerly of Dodge Main, and Larry Christensen, formerly of Warren truck assembly, put out a flyer urging members to reject the deal. "All but a very few will be sentenced for life to $14 (per hour) jobs, without real pensions, without health care in old age," they wrote.

A UAW spokesman declined to comment.

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