Sunday 20 October, 2019

Watch: Talks set to carry on but no deal yet in UAW strike vs GM

Gary Allison, left, waves while standing with other union members picketing outside the General Motors Plant in Arlington, Texas, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. More than 49,000 members of the United Auto Workers walked off General Motors factory floors or set up picket lines as contract talks with the company deteriorated into a strike. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Gary Allison, left, waves while standing with other union members picketing outside the General Motors Plant in Arlington, Texas, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. More than 49,000 members of the United Auto Workers walked off General Motors factory floors or set up picket lines as contract talks with the company deteriorated into a strike. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Talks are set to resume Tuesday after a pause overnight, but there was no end to the strike against General Motors.

Brian Rothenberg, spokesman for the UAW, said Tuesday "They are talking, they've made progress, we'll see how long it takes."

The walkout by upward of 49,000 United Auto Workers members has brought to a standstill more than 50 factories and parts warehouses in the union's first strike against the No. 1 US automaker in over a decade.

 

Workers left factories and formed picket lines shortly after midnight Monday in the dispute over a new four-year contract. The union's top negotiator said in a letter to the company that the strike could have been averted had the company made its latest offer sooner.

The letter dated Sunday suggests that the company and union are not as far apart as the rhetoric leading up to the strike had indicated. Negotiations continued Monday in Detroit after breaking off during the weekend.

But Rothenberg said the two sides have come to terms on only two percent of the contract.

"We've got 98 percent to go," he said Monday.

GM on Monday cancelled the workers' company-sponsored health insurance, Rothenberg said, but the UAW had policies in place and is covering striking workers.

GM said that under the UAW contract, responsibility for health insurance shifts from the company to the union if there is a strike.

"We understand strikes are difficult and disruptive to families," said Daniel Flores, GM spokesman. "While on strike, some benefits shift to being funded by the union's strike fund, and in this case hourly employees are eligible for union-paid COBRA so their health care benefits can continue."

Asked about the possibility of federal mediation, President Donald Trump, said it's possible if the company and union want it.

"Hopefully they'll be able to work out the GM strike quickly," Trump said Monday before leaving the White House for New Mexico. "Hopefully, they're going to work it out quickly and solidly."

Wall Street did not like seeing the union picketers. GM shares closed Monday down more than four percent, and edged down 15 cents to $37.06 Tuesday morning.

On the picket line Monday at GM's transmission plant in Toledo, Ohio, workers who said they have been with the company for more than 30 years were concerned for younger colleagues who are making less money under GM's two-tier wage scale and have fewer benefits.

Paul Kane, from South Lyon, Michigan, a 42-year GM employee, said much of what the union is fighting for will not affect him.

"It's not right when you're working next to someone, doing the same job and they're making a lot more money," he said. "They should be making the same as me. They've got families to support."

Kane said GM workers gave up pay raises and made other concessions to keep GM afloat during its 2009 trip through bankruptcy protection.

"Now it's their turn to pay us back," he said. "That was the promise they gave."

UAW Vice President Terry Dittes told GM that the company's latest offer might have made it possible to reach an agreement if it had come earlier.

"We are disappointed that the company waited until just two hours before the contract expired to make what we regard as its first serious offer," Dittes wrote in the letter to Scott Sandefur, GM's vice president of labour relations.

There are many important items left in the talks, including wage increases, pay for new hires, job security, profit sharing and treatment of temporary workers, Dittes wrote.

"We are willing to meet as frequently, and for as long as it takes, to reach an agreement that treats our members fairly," the letter said.

GM issued a statement saying it wants to reach a deal that builds a strong future for workers and the business.

The automaker said Sunday that it offered pay raises and $7 billion worth of US factory investments resulting in 5400 new positions, a minority of which would be filled by existing employees. GM would not give a precise number. The company also said it offered higher profit sharing, "nationally leading" health benefits and an $8000 payment to each worker upon ratification.

Before the talks broke off, GM offered new products to replace work at two of four US factories that it intends to close.

The company pledged to build a new all-electric pickup truck at a factory in Detroit, according to a person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The person was not authorised to disclose details of the negotiations.

The automaker also offered to open an electric vehicle battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where it has a huge factory that has already stopped making cars and will be closed. The new factory would be in addition to a proposal to make electric vehicles for a company called Workhorse, the person said.

It's unclear how many workers the two plants would employ. The closures, especially of the Ohio plant, have become issues in the 2020 presidential campaign. President Donald Trump has consistently criticised the company and demanded that Lordstown be reopened.

Kristin Dziczek, vice president of labour and industry for the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank, said the letter and resumption of contract talks are encouraging signs. "It makes me think that both sides are probably closer than it might have seemed before," she said.

But both Dziczek and Art Wheaton, an auto industry expert at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, say GM left out key details when it made part of its offer public, and working out those details could make the strike last longer.

"I think GM kind of sabotaged some of the negotiations by going immediately to the public," Wheaton said. "It really distorts the offer."

The strike shut down 33 manufacturing plants in nine states across the US, as well as 22 parts-distribution warehouses. It's the first national strike by the union since a two-day walkout in 2007 that had little impact on the company.

Workers at Fiat Chrysler and Ford continued working under contract extensions. Any agreement reached with GM will serve as a template for talks with the other two companies.

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