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UAW Says U.S. Auto Workers Must Gird For Painful Change

U.S. auto industry layoffs point toward recruiting new members at foreign carmakers' plants on U.S. soil to rebuild the union, the top United Auto Workers officer said June 12. "We frankly have not made the kind of progress at Honda, Nissan, Toyota and the other foreign nameplate operations" that we need to, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in his keynote address opening the union's convention in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In a report issued June 12, Gettelfinger noted, "This isn't a cyclical downturn. The challenges we face aren't the kind that can be ridden out. They're structural challenges, and they require new and farsighted solutions."

Harley Shaiken, a labor expert from the University of California-Berkley, who listened to the speech, said that Gettelfinger wasn't necessarily talking about concessions but he offered a very realistic and unvarnished view of today's auto industry. "What he's saying is, people who believe this is a defeated union are wrong. He's saying the union is engaged and prepared to go forward," Shaiken said.

Non-unionized U.S. plants produced 1.1 million more vehicles in 2005 than in 2001 while production at unionized plants run by the "Big Three," GM, Ford and Chrysler, fell by nearly as much.

GM and Ford each plan to slash production by more than a million vehicles in the next few years as they shutter 26 plants and lay off up to 60,000 workers. Parts suppliers Delphi Corp. and Visteon Corp. are also offering worker buyouts, which will further shrink the union's membership from the 598,000 claimed in the convention reports.

Gettelfinger acknowledged that cost of the union's health-care benefits for union members employed or retired by GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler was unsustainable.

"Our health-care non-system imposes an unfair burden on older, established employers. The longer you've been in business in this country -- the older your workforce and the more workers who've retired from your employment -- the more you pay," the report said. "The current system distorts the competitive playing field, turns what should be a social responsibility into the responsibility of individual employers and then practically invites them to renege on that responsibility," it said.

Gettelfinger defended major health-care concessions made last fall and said the UAW has long argued on behalf of a national plan for health care, a problem that cannot be fixed by negotiations with a single employer or even within a single industry.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2006

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