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Auto Workers See Coming Talks as Fight for Survival

July 26, 1987|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

FLINT, Mich. — John Penrod can barely control his rage as he spits out the words. "The layoffs, the closings, they've got to stop," insists Penrod, the president of a United Auto Workers local here that just lost 3,500 members to a plant closing. "If we don't get job security provisions in the contract, then there is not going to be an auto industry left in this country."

The surviving 3,500 GM workers in his local have not been bowed by the layoffs; instead, they are mad as hell at GM, Penrod warns, and are ready to fight management, and fight hard.

They want to keep their jobs and they want to stem the swelling tide of plant shutdowns that now threaten to decimate the UAW's ranks at the world's largest auto maker. Unless GM agrees to strong job security provisions in its contract talks with the UAW, which open Monday in Detroit, a strike will be inevitable, he cautions.

"The easiest way to say how the union membership feels is to say they are disgusted with General Motors in general, and (GM Chairman) Roger Smith in particular," Penrod adds. "And right now, the membership is more than willing to strike--they are ready to strike--if we don't get job security."

This week in Detroit, the UAW and the world's two biggest auto makers will kick off what many observers now believe could prove to be the most critical set of national labor negotiations in the modern history of the American auto industry.

For John Penrod, and hundreds of thousands of other auto workers, the future could be hanging in the balance.

Indeed, when bargainers for management and labor meet for the first time at GM on Monday and Ford on Tuesday, they will not only be embarking on the long and arduous process of trying to fashion labor agreements covering nearly 500,000 UAW members in time to beat a Sept. 14 deadline when the contracts expire. (Chrysler isn't scheduled to negotiate with the UAW until next year.)

They also may find themselves shaping the future of a deeply troubled industry, one that is rapidly moving away from its traditional reliance on domestic manufacturing in favor of cheaper overseas production in order to cope with unrelenting competition from imports.

This summer's talks may thus help determine the future level of employment in the auto industry.

"I think these will be the most crucial negotiations we have ever had," declares Alfred Warren Jr., vice president for industrial relations and GM's chief negotiator. "The outcome of this summer's contract talks will be a major factor in our ability to meet the challenge of our competitors and retain General Motors jobs," adds GM Chairman Smith.

For union members in beleaguered auto towns such as Flint, where worker hostility towards management seems to be running at an all-time high in the wake of a wave of GM plant closings, this set of contract talks may be their last chance to staunch the flow of auto jobs to Japan and the Third World; the next round of bargaining at GM and Ford, which will probably take place in 1990, could be too late.

So now, as Penrod makes clear, UAW workers are ready to strike this fall if they don't succeed at the bargaining table this summer.

"What we do will affect the next generation of auto workers," adds Jack Brown, a local union president from Flint who will be this year's chairman of the UAW's national bargaining committee at GM. "Job security is very critical right now."

GM, the only American auto maker that still produces most of its own parts, is in the midst of one of its worst sales slumps in modern times and is threatening to close more and more of its vast parts operations over the next few years.

Ford, which has already moved much of its parts production to outside suppliers, is also following a strategy that will allow it to shift more and more of its small car production to Asia and Mexico throughout the remainder of the decade.

"The 1987 talks take place against a backdrop of rapidly expanding auto investment in plants and facilities outside the United States by both GM and Ford," notes UAW President Owen Bieber. "All of this activity translates into one simple thing for our members--job insecurity," Bieber adds.

As a result, the rank-and-file's mandate to the union's leadership is now clear and unyielding--job security is by far the UAW's No. 1 priority. Here in Flint, for example, a depressed company town that has been hit with the loss of 7,000 of its 55,000 GM jobs this year, local union leaders like Penrod now say that union members will vote against any contract that doesn't include tough and meaningful new provisions limiting GM's ability to move more work overseas.

By contrast, workers here and elsewhere in the GM system seem less intent on winning big wage gains; UAW leaders have pledged to demand a return to the industry's traditional annual base wage raise of 3%, but union executives have made it clear that objective is not the top priority.

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