NEGOTIATORS for the Big Three United States automakers and the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) performed their traditional handshakes across the bargaining table this week as they sat down to negotiate a new three-year labor accord.
They'll have until midnight on Sept. 14 to come up with contracts covering nearly a half million US autoworkers. The rhetoric leading up to the start of negotiations gives the impression that labor and management will need all of the next eight weeks to come to terms.
Though it's been 20 years since the union completely shut down one of the Big Three, the word "strike" has been popping up frequently in Detroit's vocabulary.
The union is ready for "all contingencies," UAW President Owen Bieber warned Wednesday as he sat down Wednesday for the first day of bargaining with General Motors Corporation. The union's talks with Ford Motor Company began yesterday and with Chrysler Corporation today.
But despite the blustering and tough talk, both sides realize there's a wild card limiting their options more than ever before. Japanese automobile factories in the US, called transplants, have helped Japan capture a record 28 percent of the domestic market.
"There's no question the (Japanese) transplants are silent partners at the table. They may not have a voice or a vote, but their role will be looked at by both sides," says Harley Shaiken, a labor specialist with the University of California at San Diego.
Though GM, Ford, and Chrysler must each negotiate their own separate three-year agreements with the UAW, one issue will dominate: job security.
The US new car market is again in a slump. Japan's share is up from 24 percent last year. Automation and other changes threaten to reduce the need for assembly line manpower.
"Our goal is to extend and apply contractual provisions to provide job and income security to cover all the contingencies faced by our members," Mr. Bieber said this week.
But getting it in writing has proved tricky, as the union found with job security provisions contained in each of the contracts negotiated with the Big Three since 1984.
Mr. Shaiken says the union didn't read "the fine print," and as a result, they've belatedly discovered loopholes big enough to thread an assembly line through.
While the Big Three are barred from actually closing plants, GM has instead "indefinitely idled" several facilities. Whatever the language, roughly 36,000 UAW members are currently on indefinite layoff, with little chance of ever regaining their jobs.
"We're going to close" the loopholes, UAW Vice President Stan Marshall has promised. Mr. Marshall, who heads the union's Chrysler Department, added that "We can't leave any way for them to squirm out."
The Big Three insist they aren't trying to violate either the spirit or letter of their agreements, but must simply keep their options open.
The fact is, they emphasize, overall US new car sales were down by 3.4 percent during the first half of the year, but the Big Three reported a decline of 6. …