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Talk of GM, UAW harmony will be tested

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Talk of GM, UAW harmony will be tested



Dan Akerson, the new CEO at General Motors, sent a nice pre-Labor Day e-mail to the troops after meeting recently with new UAW President Bob King and Vice President Joe Ashton. "GM will succeed to the extent that management and labor work together," he wrote.

And now, in Detroit's dreams, Akerson and King will set off on the road to peace, love and understanding.

Tune in next year at this time to see how the happy couple is faring, a few days before the deadline to negotiate a new labor pact by Sept. 15, 2011.

The issues will be devilishly difficult. Any contract acceptable to Akerson and GM management will be a hard sell to rank-and-file workers.

Akerson, for example, will lead a road show in November to persuade big investors to buy stock in the new GM. He'll point out that a leaner GM, after a government rescue and bankruptcy, has posted a $2-billion half-year profit in a yucky auto sales market -- and he'll paint a picture of gushing profit potential whenever the economy surges.

Then, as he enters 2011, Akerson will plead poor-mouth to the labor union, bemoaning fierce competition from Korean and Japanese rivals, while warning of great economic uncertainty.

King, who gets applause from UAW members for insisting that workers must "share in the upside" of a recovery and win back previous concessions, also tells nonunion crowds his members are committed to delivering the best cars with the best quality at the best value.

Anyone who thinks UAW members are resigned to a future of much lower wage and benefit levels needs only look at the current impasse at GM's Indianapolis stamping plant.

The plant will close next year unless UAW Local 23 members agree to have J.D. Norman Industries buy it, contingent on the 650 workers accepting wage cuts from $29 an hour to $15.50, in return for lump-sum cash payments to cushion the blow.

So far, the Indy workers have refused to reopen the contract and save jobs, hoping instead that their bumping rights will allow them to snag better pay at other GM plants.

Ashton told me Friday the UAW's top priority in the year ahead is "jobs, how to bring the most GM investment and jobs into this country."

Other key questions heading into next year's contract talks:

What becomes of the no-strike clause and the vow to maintain "an all-in labor cost comparable to its U.S. competitors, including transplant automotive manufacturers," which GM and Chrysler promised the U.S. government in return for bailout cash? A binding arbitration clause in the current contract appears to extend that promise until 2015, unless the parties agree to change it.

That language hasn't been tested yet. Does it mean GM and Chrysler must maintain parity with Toyota wages and benefits in Kentucky, where they are roughly comparable to Detroit Three levels? Or to Hyundai pay in Alabama, or Toyota's in San Antonio, which are significantly lower?

Lots of potential obstacles await on that road to peace, love and understanding.



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