If you want two disparate groups to unite, give them a common cause.

That appears to be part of the strategy – intentional or not – for the United Auto Workers union and Detroit’s Big Three, which are smartly pointing their fingers at the government, rather than each other.

The UAW, which re-elected its president, Ron Gettelfinger, and a new slate of officers earlier this month, has the tough task ahead of working with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to re-engineer a healthier domestic auto industry without appearing too soft to its rank and file members.

To help set the tone for upcoming contract negotiations in 2007, Gettelfinger sprinkles his “State of the Union” speech with some jabs at high-salaried CEOs and veiled shots at suppliers Delphi and Tower for wanting to rip up “contracts and impose poverty-level wages on workers.”

But Gettelfinger knows it would serve no purpose to work up rank-and-file fervor against Big Three brass when in a little more than a year he may be asking those same members to vote on a new concession-laden labor contract aimed at righting a listing domestic auto industry.

Instead, the union boss cleverly aims his biggest volleys at Washington, giving workers something to blame besides company mismanagement for the current massive job losses, health-care cuts and corporate bankruptcies threatening their livelihoods.

“Everything we’ve fought for in the political arena is at risk from those politicians who want to destroy the social contract and roll back the clock 70 years,” he says.

Gettlefinger reiterates an earlier call for the White House and Congress to provide financial incentives to auto makers for advanced technology development and the manufacture of alternatively powered vehicles. He pushes for a “level playing field” on international trade, federal action to reduce health-care costs and bankruptcy reform that would prevent corporations from “misuse and abuse.”

Coincidentally – or not, top executives from GM, Ford and Chrysler also have been stepping up the rhetoric on Washington. And they appear to be in lockstep with the union on a number of issues.

GM CEO Rick Wagoner has gotten back on the stump in recent months, campaigning against what he says is currency manipulation by Japan that unfairly inflates profits for its auto makers. “It really hurts a number of industries in the U.S., and it’s really inconsistent with free trade,” he says.

Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda also chimes in on the yen-dollar debate.

"We need our government to understand how its actions can either encourage or set up roadblocks to American competitiveness," he says.

Mark Fields, Ford president-The Americas, tells the Chamber of Commerce in Washington there needs to be a “permanent research and development tax credit that we can count on through the highs and lows of the business cycle.” And he says it will “take all of us – corporations, government and the American people” to find a solution to rising health-care costs.

The UAW and Big Three management might not be exactly on the same page, but they rarely have sounded more in tune.

dzoia@wardsauto.com