DETROIT (AP) – Contract talks between the United Auto Workers
and the traditional Big Three automakers have quickened in recent
days as bargainers try to reach agreements before the current pacts
expire Sept. 14.

A deal could be reached in the next few days, after UAW
President Ron Gettelfinger confers with his lieutenants on the
status of talks with General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co.,
DaimlerChrysler AG and suppliers Delphi Corp. and Visteon Corp., a
source close to the negotiations told The Associated Press on
condition of anonymity.

The sides have been meeting daily, at times late into the night,
since mid-July.

An early resolution “would be very unusual, but this is a new
president who might want to set a certain innovative style,” said
Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive
Research in Ann Arbor.

“You’d have to go back to pre-1978,” McAlinden said. “But it
could be something new. Why not?”

The current contracts were negotiated in 1999 during the term of
Gettelfinger’s fiery predecessor, Stephen Yokich, who died last
year. The UAW and automakers are negotiating confidentially on
issues such as wages, jobs, health care and pensions that affect
300,000 workers and nearly a half-million retirees and their
spouses.

At a time when the U.S. market share for GM, Ford and Chrysler
is at an all-time low, and foreign automakers continue to expand
their domestic lineups and capacity, most observers say the
probability of a strike is low.

“Given the very competitive market, neither side wants a repeat
of 1998, when GM endured a 54-day walkout at several facilities and
lost significant market share,” Morgan Stanley analyst Stephen J.
Girsky said in a recent research report.

Gettelfinger has yet to choose one of the companies to lead
negotiations. Typically, the union reaches a deal with one
automaker and the others follow the resulting contract terms _ a
so-called “pattern” agreement in the industry.

In past years, the leader has been called the “target” – as in
“strike target” – but all sides hinted early on this summer that a
strike would not be in the best interest of anyone involved.

GM, Ford and Chrysler reportedly have made their initial offers,
though no one with the companies or the union will discuss the
progress of talks.

McAlinden said the offers could be similar enough that the UAW
will negotiate with all three until a pact is reached.

“That would be very, very different – no target, no leader,” he
said. “But all three companies aren’t in a great position right
now. Even if one of them could offer something better than the
other two, there’s probably a feeling that the other two couldn’t
come up with it.”

One of the major issues heading into negotiations was expected
to be health care. The three automakers have repeatedly said rising
health care tabs represent one of their biggest cost disadvantages
as they try to compete with foreign automakers, whose comparable
U.S. obligations are minuscule.

However, Gettelfinger has insisted the UAW will not budge from
its position of not accepting more of the financial burden for
workers and retirees.

In recorded telephone messages to union members, UAW executives
said the sides had made progress on a number of issues, but key
negotiating remained.

In one message, UAW official Joel Goddard said that as of Monday
he and others had held more than 270 meetings with Ford
negotiators, and that they had made substantial progress on issues
such as health and safety and quality.

However, Goddard added, “we have much more work to do before we
win a contract that’s fair to our members and positions Ford to win
back market share and return to profitability.”

The 1999 pacts included 3 percent annual pay hikes, a ban on
plant closings and nearly cost-free health care.

Considering the competitiveness of the industry, Morgan
Stanley’s Girsky says a repeat of the current contract would be
viewed poorly by investors.

“Our best guess … is that wages will go up at a lower rate
than in the prior contract, there will be little cost shifting of
health care beyond possible modest increases in drug co-pays, and
some exceptions on capacity reductions will be agreed to but over a
longer period of time than originally planned by the companies,”
the firm’s report says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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