Special Report

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Labor Talks

DETROIT – Chief negotiators with the United Auto Workers union are ready for a struggle in their bid to ratify their tentative agreement with Chrysler LLC.

Despite the “overwhelming support” demonstrated here at a meeting of top union officials, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger warns: “We never take anything for granted.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do here explaining this contract,” Gettelfinger tells reporters after a lively meeting to outline details of the 4-year deal.

Dissent arose when the union’s chief bargainer declared he could not support the agreement, which establishes a fund to finance ongoing retiree health-care benefits and sets up a 2-tier wage structure. The fund and the new wage structure relieves Chrysler of skyrocketing operational costs that are blamed for adversely affecting the auto maker’s competitive position.

Central to the opposition, however, is the lack of detail in the Chrysler contract. Unlike the previously negotiated deal with General Motors Corp., the Chrysler agreement offers less in the way of guaranteed production.

Says Gettelfinger, who does not confirm which issues were most rancorous: “We did the very best that we could in this set of negotiations to take care of the situations that impact our membership throughout the Chrysler system. We’re very pleased with the outcome of the negotiations, and we’re prepared to go out into the field and take this agreement forward and get it explained and get it ratified.”

One senior union official who requested anonymity says the UAW leadership is unfazed. Opposition, the official says, was in a “couple small pockets.”

A junior official says there is trepidation about how Chrysler will operate under its new owner, private-equity firm Cerberus Management LP.

The GM deal, ratified Oct. 11, was rejected by one third of those who cast ballots. But Gettelfinger describes the approval margin as “very good.”

“When you get two-thirds in favor of the agreement, we were very, very pleased with that,” he says. “I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do as well at Chrysler.”

If the Chrysler deal is OK’d, the union will intensify its discussions with Ford Motor Co.

“This is a good agreement for our membership, as well as for the companies,” Gettelfinger says. “Hopefully, we can get into Ford and get it wrapped up.”

emayne@wardsauto.com