The United Automobile Workers union wielded its most potent weapon against General Motors yesterday, sending 73,000 workers to picket lines in its first national strike at GM since 1970.

Trevor Campbell
UAW workers on the picket line outside of the General Motors Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti yesterday afternoon. Union workers walked out at 11 a.m. after UAW President Ron Gettelfinger announced a nationwide strike. (PETER SCHOTTENFELS/Daily)
Trevor Campbell
The UAW union went on strike against General Motors yesterday. At 11 a.m., thousands of workers, including those at the Willow Rrun plant in Ypsilanti. (PETER SCHOTTENFELS/Daily)
Trevor Campbell

Union officials said they were left no choice but to strike because General Motors was unwilling to accept the union’s demand that it protect workers’ jobs and benefits.

“We’ve done a lot of things to help that company,” said Ron Gettelfinger, the union’s president, in a news conference shortly after the 11 a.m. strike deadline. “But look, there comes a point in time where you have to draw a line in the sand.”

For General Motors, its unyielding stance reflects its decision to accept the short-term pain of a strike at 80 sites in 30 states to achieve its goals: a lower cost structure and more flexible workforce to better compete against surging Japanese automakers like Toyota and Honda.

“This really is a defining moment,” said James P. Womack, an expert on manufacturing and co-author of “The Machine That Changed The World,” which studied the plants of Japanese automakers in the United States. “GM has backed away from defining moments for generations. And now somebody there has finally said, ‘We have to do this because it’s a new era.”‘

The length of the walkout may depend on two questions: How long can the UAW afford to stay out? And how long can GM endure a strike? While neither side can endure an indefinite strike, both have decided they have more to gain by standing tough.

GM is better positioned to handle a strike than in earlier contract talks, though not for reasons that have to do with strength. With its operations shrinking in the United States, the majority of its sales and profits are now coming from abroad.

It is selling more vehicles built in Canada, Mexico, and Europe, the source of new models for its Saturn division. And it is expanding production rapidly overseas, especially in China, which is fast becoming one of the world’s major car markets.

The company’s problems at home, which resulted in losses of more than $12 billion in the last two years, have forced it to close all or part of a dozen factories, cut tens of thousands of jobs and offer deals to workers to quit or retire. A smaller GM means there are far fewer workers involved in this strike, so a halt in production inflicts less pain on the company.

The UAW has seen its membership at GM shrink by more than 80 percent since the 1970 strike, when 400,000 workers were off the job for 67 days.

In recent years, the UAW has been more cooperative with Detroit automakers, working side-by-side with auto executives to fashion early retirement incentives to shrink the work force and better match Detroit’s diminished stature within the industry. It also agreed to concessions on health care at GM and Ford Motor.

But on Monday, UAW officials dispelled any doubts among its membership that it could still stand up to management.

“A strike gives the union an opportunity to say we’re not completely acquiescent,” said David L. Gregory, a professor of labor law at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y.
“I think a lot of people are happy the strike happened, because they believe the company is walking over them,” said Eldon Renaud, president of UAW Local 2164 in Bowling Green, Ky., where workers make the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac XLR sports cars.

The strike occurred despite GM and the UAW agreeing to discuss a health care trust – called a voluntary employee benefit association, or VEBA – that would have assumed GM’s $55 billion liability for medical benefits. GM considered the formation of a VEBA its major demand.

Investors and GM managers have pushed for a VEBA as a way to move the liability of generous health care benefits for current and retired GM workers, as well as their families, off the books of the automaker once and for all, even if it required a huge upfront payment.

GM has long said that such costs, representing hundreds of dollars for every car it builds, put it at a disadvantage with foreign competitors.

Gettelfinger, in fact, stressed that the strike was over other issues besides the VEBA, with job security topping the list.
Tom Wickham, a GM spokesman, said, “The bargaining involves complex, difficult issues that affect the job security of our U.S. work force and the long-term viability of the company.” He added that company officials would “continue focusing our efforts on reaching an agreement as soon as possible.”

Negotiators from each side were back at the bargaining table by early afternoon on Monday. But industry analysts said that, given how far apart the two sides appear to be, the strike could last for weeks.

Jonathan Steinmetz, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said the company could endure a strike lasting several weeks, but not more. After that, GM would begin to burn cash, and investors, who have encouraged GM to take a firm stand with the UAW, might eventually grow impatient in the face of a months-long strike.

Another analyst, Mark Oline of Fitch Ratings, cautioned that the damage caused by the walkout would have a ripple affect on suppliers that sell parts to GM “The UAW strike has the potential for far-reaching, crippling repercussions throughout the industry,” Oline said in a research report issued Monday.

The union, which pays workers $200 a week in strike pay if they take shifts on the picket line, has nearly $900 million in its strike fund, enough to cover a two-month walkout.

GM, meanwhile, had a 65-day supply of vehicles at the end of August, about normal for summer, and it had already announced plans to reduce production in the final three months of the year because of slowing sales.

Beyond that, however, the two sides risk damage to their images. In recent years, the UAW had crafted an image of being more of a partner than a foe in Detroit’s efforts to restructure.

Even last week, Gettelfinger said in an e-mail message to union members that the UAW was committed to avoiding a walkout, although he acknowledged Monday that he suspected last week a strike was likely.

Likewise, GM has spent years trying to convince consumers that its vehicles are the equivalent of high-quality Japanese models, and that its brands are every bit as appealing as the Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans. An angry work force, or one worried about its future, may scare off some buyers.

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