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
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
The Big Three insist they aren't trying to violate either the
spirit or letter of their agreements, but must simply keep their
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. …