Progress In GM And UAW Talks

Saturday, September 22nd 2007, 2:38 pm
By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ Negotiators for General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers returned to the bargaining table Saturday after progress was made a day earlier on transferring retiree health care costs from the company to the union, two people briefed on the talks said.

GM, which has $51 billion in unfunded retiree health care costs on its books and 540,000 UAW retirees and spouses, badly wants to pay the union to form a trust and take on much of the expense. The UAW is seeking guarantees of new vehicles to be built in U.S. plants in exchange.

Bargainers have not settled on a final number for how much GM would put into the trust, but both people briefed on the talks said they are close. Both requested anonymity because the talks are private.

Bargaining now is focused on other economic issues that hinge on the trust including pensions, wages, profit sharing, and who manufactures company parts, said one of the people.

Despite optimism, a deal is believed to be at least a few days away, the person said.

GM sees the trust, called a Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association or VEBA, as the least painful way to cut into what the U.S. auto companies say is about a $25-per-hour labor cost gap between them and their Japanese competitors.

The talks, which have extended more than a week beyond the original deadline, resumed Saturday morning, GM spokesman Tom Wickham said. They were expected to continue all weekend. Wickham would not comment on developments, and messages were left for UAW spokesman Roger Kerson.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger told members Friday he was trying to speed up negotiations with General Motors and wanted to reach a contract agreement without a strike.

``We are continuing to make progress; however, we are pushing to accelerate the negotiating pace at all levels,'' he said in a message to UAW members. ``It is our desire to reach an agreement without a strike, and we have demonstrated this by staying at the bargaining table up to this point.''

Gettelfinger added that the effort to speed the talks doesn't mean any of the union's options are off the table, including the option to strike, according to the message, which was posted Friday evening on a union Web site in Oklahoma.

GM and the UAW spent Friday negotiating issues such as wages and job security, while experts helped finalize the possible health care deal, according to the people briefed on the negotiations.

Local union officials said they'd gotten few updates from bargainers and expressed frustration at the long wait for a new contract. Friday marked one week since the expiration of GM's contract with the union. The UAW has been extending the contract hour by hour since then.

Chris ``Tiny'' Sherwood, the president of Local 652 in Lansing, said it's unusual for the contract to be extended for so long on an hour-by-hour basis. The union is continuing to tell local leaders to have workers ready for a strike if talks break down.

``A week later we're still hanging in there,'' Sherwood said.

Gettelfinger said negotiators have met for 18 days straight. He said the union was releasing little information to members because the negotiations frequently change.

``We want you to know once again that we do not take your patience for granted, and GM should know not to take the patience of our bargaining committee for granted either,'' Gettelfinger said.

GM was picked by the union as the lead company and potential strike target in this year's bargaining. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC will likely match many of the terms of GM's contract once it's settled.

Protracted contract talks aren't unprecedented. In the last three negotiations _ in 2003, 1999 and 1996 _ the UAW settled with the lead companies within a few days of the deadline. But in 1996, the UAW's negotiations with GM dragged into November even though it reached an agreement in September with Ford.