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Detroit 3 chiefs, UAW can try trust

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Detroit 3 chiefs, UAW can try trust



As the UAW elects a new president and Detroit's automakers rally from near-fatal crises, the leaders of General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and their chief labor union must seize this moment to forge a new relationship built on trust, flexibility and simplicity.

For the first time since its founding in Detroit 75 years ago, the UAW holds its constitutional convention in the Motor City this week, hoping to rebound from plunging membership.

Bob King, expected to succeed outgoing UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, can start by vowing to ditch the 2,000-page national contracts that spell out in excruciating detail how plant-level decisions must be made, grieved and arbitrated.

Those deals reflect a half-century of deep and corrosive distrust between labor and management, which produced a costly business model.

Gettelfinger made tough calls -- mostly at gunpoint -- to cut costs and help keep the Detroit Three alive.

Now King, expected to lead a rank and file weary of concessions, must chart a new course.

Trust and shared goals must replace adversarial relations. No other viable options remain.

King can launch new era

For a snapshot of how labor-management relations have changed in Detroit's auto industry, just compare the UAW-Ford contracts of 1941 and 2007, as University of Michigan economics professor Mark Perry did last year.

The 1941 pact was a tiny 24-page booklet that fit in the palm of a hand. In 2007, the agreement was 2,215 pages and weighed 22 pounds.

That's what happens after a half-century of mutual distrust. When neither side trusts the other to implement the basic bargain, thousands of procedural do's and don't's get baked into contracts.

The result: a rote, rigid, paint-by-numbers way of doing business in Detroit that proved darn near fatal in a 21st-Century world where flexibility and speedy decision-making are critical. Only the government rescue of GM and Chrysler and the Alan Mulally-led turnaround at Ford saved the Detroit Three and the UAW from the scrap heap.

Time to simplify things

Happily, Bob King, heir-apparent to outgoing UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, now has a golden opportunity to press the reset button and usher in a new era of trust and shared goals. Why not bargain a new set of simplified contracts spelling out base wages and benefits and fewer job classifications, and let supervisors and workers figure out the rest? Such deals already have been hammered out at many union locals; why not take it a big step further?

Skeptical? Of course, why wouldn't you be? Gettelfinger led a period of extraordinary change, but not without a lot of blowback -- harsh exchanges with Delphi's Steve Miller, a nasty strike at American Axle, a rejection of concessions for Ford's rank-and-file.

It can be done

OK, so it won't be easy. But a new era of trust and pragmatism is possible in Michigan. Two recent examples:

• In the ultracompetitive retailing wars, Michigan-based -- and unionized -- Meijer goes head to head with nonunion behemoth Wal-Mart. An innovative contract with the United Food & Commercial Workers, in which Meijer sets aside a portion of sales for employee health care -- and then adjusts coverage and co-pays with the union as health care costs fluctuate -- is a key provision.

"Trust and openness is the key," says Meijer President Mark Murray. That, and the joint recognition by union and management that Wal-Mart would eat Meijer alive otherwise.

• When Ford's glass-making plants in Tulsa and Nashville were facing sale or closure in 2007, Ford and the UAW and the new buyer, Zeledyne, hammered out a new deal, shrinking the number of job classifications from 20 to three, and adjusting wages, retirement and health care plans, saving hundreds of jobs.

Bob King, who was UAW Ford vice president during the Zeledyne deal, is a passionate advocate for workers getting a fair share of the company wealth. He also has shown a pragmatic side, bending on some contract provisions to keep plants alive and UAW members working.

Soon we'll see how innovative he can be at building a new spirit of trust as Detroit's automakers move forward with their new lease on life.



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