DETROIT — As union workers angered by plant closings demonstrated outside, the United Auto Workers and General Motors officially opened nationwide contract talks at GM's headquarters here Monday morning. Bargainers for both sides agreed that job security will be the No. 1 issue in the negotiations.
The talks were opened with a ritual handshake across the bargaining table between UAW President Owen Bieber and GM Industrial Relations Vice President Alfred S. Warren Jr. Afterwards, Bieber told company negotiators in a lengthy, prepared statement behind closed doors that GM must live up to its responsibilities to its workers and to the nation by retaining jobs in America.
In a press conference after the morning bargaining session, Bieber stressed that the union, which represents 335,000 of GM's 366,000 hourly workers in the United States, is committed to reaching a settlement without a strike after the current contract expires Sept. 14. But he cautioned that the UAW is more determined than ever before to force GM to agree to tough new limits on the company's ability to move work overseas.
"These negotiations couldn't be more critical. . . . Our members at GM are totally united in their determination to win new levels of job security, to be assured that they have a future with the corporation," Bieber said. "This is why our overriding objective in these talks is to build that structure of job security and to assure that GM remains accountable not only to its workers, but to American communities and to America as a whole."
Meanwhile, the UAW opens contract talks with Ford today at the company's headquarters, and Bieber said Monday that job security will be the central issue in those negotiations as well. The union is not scheduled to negotiate with Chrysler until next year.
Warren, GM's chief negotiator, noted in a separate press conference Monday that he believes this year's talks will be the most difficult GM and the UAW have faced in their 50-year bargaining relationship because of the mounting pressures GM faces from imports.
"I think we are going to have a very, very difficult time," he said, "not because we are angry with each other, but because . . . I don't think the external forces have ever been as great as they are today."
Warren also said the UAW must be willing to show flexibility in its approach to both national and plant-level contract talks if it is to protect its members' jobs. "Job security lies in our ability to be competitive," Warren said. "Anything that makes us less competitive damages our ability to provide job security."
Warren indicated that the local contract talks now getting under way throughout GM's network of parts plants may be just as crucial as the national negotiations in determining how much work GM keeps in-house in the coming years.
Just as the bargaining got under way Monday morning, several hundred UAW members staged a protest outside GM headquarters, demanding that the company agree to improved job security and better pensions--so that older workers will be encouraged to retire to make room for younger workers now on layoff.
Chanting "Outsource Roger," a sarcastic demand that GM Chairman Roger B. Smith be shipped overseas in place of union jobs, the demonstrators cheered as Bieber, clenched fist held high, entered GM headquarters for the start of negotiations.