Why was anyone surprised when the United Auto Workers union ordered a strike against General Motors?

Prior to the 40-hour walkout, observers of this year’s auto talks discounted the prospect of a labor stoppage, betting the UAW would flinch in the face of today’s unsettled economy.

So when the assembly lines were shut down, pundits were stunned. Some even suggested the walkout was a UAW ploy designed as a grim reminder that joblessness awaits those union members who would expect too much from the new contract.

Though negotiators anticipate ratification of the tentative deal described by UAW President Ron Gettelfinger as “different in some ways and better in other ways,” insiders have predicted stormy ratification meetings when workers see what their union dues are getting them this time around. That’s because they are accustomed to winning, and winning big.

(For the record, Gettelfinger has too much personal integrity to play politics with the paychecks of his 73,000 GM constituents.)

Forgotten in these talks is that history has not borne witness to a bargaining climate less conducive to conciliation.

For generations, the UAW has arrived at the table with enough demands to make an extortionist blush. This time, however, the union is playing defense in a frantic bid to fend off cutbacks and takeaways posed by a desperate GM.

In GM’s defense, it is wrestling with a disturbing new reality. One in which the auto maker’s primary competitor – Toyota, coveter of its top-dog industry status – is unburdened by the crushing, resource-draining financial responsibilities to legions of retirees.

More alarming is GM’s faint blip on the radar screens of consumer consciousness. Consider the recent email disseminated through the hallowed halls of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

In a bid to make fuel efficiency “a top priority” for its employees, the HHS published a list touting the performance of 12 cars. It read: Honda, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, three more Toyotas, Honda, Kia, two Hyundais and another Honda.

No mention of a GM brand, even though the auto maker boasts the most models capable of achieving 30 mpg (7.8L/100 km).

Curious also was the decision by the HHS to get its list from the watchdog American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. The Environmental Protection Agency, an arm of government not unlike the HHS, lists four GM vehicles – along with six from Ford – among its 20 greenest vehicles.

Back in the day, GM and its Detroit-based rivals simply paid for labor peace. With a combined market share approaching 80%, they could afford it.

No longer.

Reconcile this new reality with the old expectations of UAW members, and you have tension. Factor in last year’s landmark forfeiture of wage hikes and cost-of-living increases that were trumpeted as the critical measures needed to improve Detroit’s competitiveness, and you have a recipe for strike action.