March 28, 2007

Auto Union Head Vows Hard Line Against Concessions

DETROIT, March 27 — The head of the United Automobile Workers union, who has been criticized by some members for not taking a firm enough stance against wage and benefit cuts, made clear Tuesday that workers are done making sacrifices.

The union leader, Ron Gettelfinger, opened the U.A.W.’s two-day bargaining convention Tuesday by saying that he would take a hard line against more concessions, even if it meant calling a strike.

He assured workers that agreements with General Motors and the Ford Motor Company that required them to pay a part of health care coverage did not mean he would be timid in his approach to contract negotiations this summer with all three Detroit automakers.

And after the 1,500 convention delegates had filed out for the day, Mr. Gettelfinger told reporters that the union was done “playing around” with the Delphi Corporation, the parts supplier operating in bankruptcy protection. He said the union would strike if Delphi, which has given retention bonuses to executives, cancels its labor agreements and cuts hourly wages. The bankruptcy court approved the executive bonuses last week.

“If they void the contracts, we are going to shut them down,” he said. “We’re not going to play around with them anymore. They’re a bunch of hogs slopping at a trough that’s full of money and they can’t get enough.”

For now, the threat of a strike at Delphi — an action that could cripple operations at G.M., its largest customers — is mostly symbolic.

A Delphi spokesman, Lindsey Williams, said the company in mid-January suspended court proceedings that could have led to the contracts being voided. Delphi “has been working constructively with the U.A.W.” and hopes “to reach a consensual agreement,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Gettelfinger’s comments about Delphi came several hours after he warned Detroit’s automakers that the union was willing to strike if necessary. The U.A.W.’s current contract with the automakers expires in September; talks on a new deal are scheduled to begin in July.

“Our union does not want to strike, but when employers act as if collective bargaining is a one-way street and not a two-way street, then we will do what we have to do — make no mistake about it,” Mr. Gettelfinger said, his voice rising.

He addressed criticism regarding health care concessions by saying, “Collective bargaining is not collective begging, and where we have demonstrated cooperation it would be a grave mistake to equate our actions to capitulation.”

Mr. Gettelfinger has shown that he will not simply give in to whatever the automakers demand, no matter how much executives insist they need help from the union. Last year, the U.A.W. refused to help the Chrysler Group reduce health care costs, a move analysts say contributed to the decision by Chrysler’s parent, the German automaker DaimlerChrysler, to explore selling the unit.

But many union members fear a new labor agreement will contain more bad news, given that all three Detroit automakers lost more than $1 billion in 2006 — Ford lost a record $12.7 billion — and have begun major overhauls.

“There’s not an end to the concessions,” Gregory Shotwell, a founder of Soldiers of Solidarity, a splinter group opposed to concessions, said. “The corporations are on a full frontal attack, and he really seems to be back on his heels,” he added, speaking of Mr. Gettelfinger.

Gary N. Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said Mr. Gettelfinger risked losing support if concessions start to become common.

Some local leaders say they realize that globalization of the industry, soaring health care costs and other factors leave the union with little choice but to compromise.

“We understand the world is changing,” said Joseph Boarman, vice president of Local 110, which represents workers at a Chrysler plant in St. Louis. “It’s time to accept it, and just do the best we can.”