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The stakes for the UAW at GM

September 28, 2007 | Page 15

LEE SUSTAR reports on a national strike at GM after contract negotiations broke down.

QUIET BACKROOM discussions suddenly gave way to the first national auto strike in 37 years when 78,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) walked out at General Motors September 24.

While UAW President Ron Gettelfinger had done nothing to prepare members for a walkout, GM leaked word of the progress of negotiations to the business press. The apparent aim was to prepare workers to accept unprecedented concessions in retiree health care in exchange for some guarantees of job security and wages.

Instead, a prospective deal unraveled as the original September 15 strike deadline approached, Gettelfinger said at a press conference. "This is nothing that we wanted," he told reporters. "Nobody wins in a strike. But there comes a time when somebody can push you off a cliff, and that's exactly what happened here."

For many workers fed up with decades of concessions to the Big Three Detroit automakers, the strike was welcome. "This is long overdue," said Gregg Shotwell, a worker in a GM parts warehouse in Michigan and an organizer of the Soldiers of Solidarity rank-and-file network. "I am hearing people say, 'Yeah, it's about time.' I'm not hearing fear and trepidation. Despite the fact that they weren't prepared by the union, people are prepared emotionally."

For UAW members, the strike is an opportunity to push back at a company that has extracted enormous concessions in just the last four years alone.

In his press conference, Gettelfinger listed the givebacks, including foregoing a cost of living allowance agreement; the creation of a Voluntary Employee Benefits Association (VEBA) fund to reduce retiree health care costs, a giveback worth $18 billion; and an attrition program that eliminated tens of thousands of jobs through buyouts and early retirements.

As a result of the jobs reductions and past downsizing, GM employment has dropped from 350,000 in 1980 to the 78,000 on strike today. According to Gettelfinger, the union is demanding that GM halt the job cuts. "The number one issue here is job security," he said.

On the other hand, Gettelfinger stressed repeatedly that the strike was not about the possible expansion of the VEBA into a $50 billion union-controlled fund to administer retiree health care. The issue is controversial in the UAW because it would be underfunded by 20 to 30 percent, would saddle the union with billions in GM stock and convert the union into the manager of one of the biggest investment pools in the U.S.

In fact, Gettelfinger said, it was UAW leaders who first proposed the creation of such a giant fund in 2005, but GM turned them down. "To this day, I am puzzled why General Motors walked away from the VEBA in '05," he said. "Had they have taken that then, it would've been over $2 billion a year and around a thousand dollars a vehicle" in cost savings.

Although Gettelfinger has calculated the advantages of a VEBA for GM, he has done little to prepare UAW local leaders to sell such a deal to union members. Soldiers of Solidarity activists, however, have produced shop floor newsletters detailing how underfunded VEBAs ran out of money at Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel, leaving UAW retirees with more expensive health care coverage, or no coverage at all.

"I'm not going on strike for an underfunded VEBA, two-tier pay scales or a wage cut," Shotwell said. "If I'm going to strike, I want to win something. This strike is long overdue. We have been taking concessions for a long time. Maybe Gettelfinger got the message we have been trying to send him--that concessions don't save jobs."

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