They face a common threat: layoffs, reduced hours and other cost-cutting measures over which they have little control. But in the wake of restructuring plans at DaimlerChrysler Corp. that will cut the workforce by 20% over three years, the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) unions are launching decidedly different fights.

And, not unlike Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, both unions have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The company men they built relationships with are gone, and they must turn to a new management team led by a pair of relative strangers, President Dieter Zetsche and Chief Operating Officer Wolfgang Bernhard.

When DCC announced its plan Jan. 29 to idle six plants through 2002 and reduce its hourly workforce by 19,000, the UAW's public response seemed oddly detached.

“We've been down this road before,” UAW President Steve Yokich says in a one-page statement posted on the union's Web site.

“By working together within the framework of national agreements, we are confident that we can improve the future prospects for UAW DaimlerChrysler workers and the Chrysler Group,” adds Nate Gooden, chief of the union's DaimlerChrysler department.

And that, essentially, was it, to the dismay of members that felt some fist pounding was in order and that the information flow left much to be desired. Many read the lack of immediate public response from the UAW as evidence of its complicity.

By comparison, the CAW is in everyone's face. President Buzz Hargrove calls the loss of 2,600 Canadian jobs “tragic. It's a terrible situation,” he says, and 4% more, proportionately, than the UAW.

The CAW fought the plan to the final minutes, resulting in an 11th-hour reprieve for some 600 jobs in Windsor, Ont. The company presented the union with a plan that eliminated shifts at the Bramalea large-car assembly plant in Brampton, Ont., Pillette Road large van/wagon plant in Windsor, Ont. and the Windsor minivan plant. The company said four shifts (two in Windsor, two in St. Louis) and 27 Saturday overtime shifts would be sufficient to meet minivan demand.

CAW Local 444 President Ken Lewenza says his members “would not build a single minivan on overtime” while fellow workers were on layoff. The company backed down and agreed to control its inventories — and costs — by reducing line speed instead, a loss of only 400 jobs. DCC agreed to assemble minivans on five shifts at straight time. Windsor saved about 600 jobs; St. Louis lost its overtime.

The CAW has also launched a public campaign to convince DCC to put a new product into Pillette so it will not be shuttered Jan. 1, 2003. The union leadership stages news conferences and sets up meetings with Canadian provincial and federal government officials. They are lobbying for money to improve infrastructure (roads, border crossing), as well as new regulations to guarantee future industry investment with the Feb. 19 expiration of the Canada-US Autopact trade agreement. Community meetings are being staged, with concerned citizens planning missions to Germany to plead their case. And the CAW's Mr. Hargrove already is planning to make Pillette a key bargaining issue when the master agreement with DaimlerChrysler Canada Inc. expires in September 2002.

“The problem is, when you most need your power, you have the least,” Mr. Hargrove says. “We have these huge inventories out there. Our only weapon is to withdraw our labor in some manner.” Against a corporate plan to reduce costs by 15%, “we have absolutely no weapons at all,” says the exasperated union chief. “It's about relationships now. It's about their obligation to workers and their recognition of the work that's been done … what it's meant for quality, productivity, costs and profits in the plants.”

Would Mr. Hargrove rather be dealing with past executives, such as fellow Canadian and former DCC President James P. Holden who approved the C$1.5 billion (US$1 billion) tripling of the Pillette plant to build a new product? That construction has been halted under Mr. Zetsche's austerity plan.

“We knew them better,” Mr. Hargrove says of the old guard. “And you're obviously more comfortable with people you've been around awhile. Sometimes individuals make a real difference. But I have to be fair to Dieter Zetsche… We've had tough debates. But they've been open, they've been listening, and they've been responding. The third shift for the minivan is an example of that.”

As the unions vie for new product to keep their members happy, the UAW has the advantage of Mr. Yokich's seat on the supervisory board of parent company DaimlerChrysler AG.

The seat was first occupied by former UAW President Doug Fraser, who says he is not surprised by the divergent reactions of the two unions.

“If you just look back over the years, that follows a pattern,” Mr. Fraser says. “(The CAW) are inclined to overdramatize. The UAW has adopted a policy, for good or bad — I think, bad — not to be as open as they once were. …So you get different results.”

Does “different” mean better? “It depends on your point of view,” Mr. Fraser says. “I suppose Steve would argue, ‘What good does it do to be out there publicly?’”

In the end, however, personalities are irrelevant, says Mr. Hargrove. Market conditions will drive future discussions.

“I'd sooner deal with Dieter Zetsche if we had the old company, where we had sales booming, we had C$1.5 billion investment going into a plant and we can't meet production demand. That's what gives us our power — when the plants are running full out.”

To date, there have been no talks between the unions. And there seems little possibility they will occur.

Says Mr. Hargrove: “There's no advantage of us getting together with the UAW because they're in the same boat we are.”