Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Strike at Chrysler?

The UAW has notified Chrysler that unless a new contract is agreed upon by 11:00 AM Wednesday, it will call a general strike and its members will walk off their jobs. This means that I could end up on a picket line Thursday morning (yes, my steward has already given me my assignment). I'm not thrilled about this one bit - I would much rather be working than have an unpaid vacation.

The main sticking points that have been reported include health care costs for both active workers and retirees & job security. Excerpts from msnbc.msn.com:

Chrysler's needs are different from GM's requirements, analysts said, so a deal requires cost cuts in different places.

"We think that they may be holding out for something more than GM got," said Aaron Bragman, an industry analyst for the consulting firm Global Insight.

Among the differences this time, analysts say, are health care givebacks granted to GM and Ford Motor Co. in 2005 that Chrysler didn't get, worth approximately $340 million a year.

Several analysts also said the company and union likely are apart on setting up a Chrysler-funded union-run trust that would take on the company's roughly $18 billion in retiree health care costs. Unlike GM, Chrysler also may be against giving specific job security promises by guaranteeing new cars and trucks will be built at U.S. factories, and it wants to hire out parts transportation rather than pay full UAW wages for it, the analysts said.

Cerberus, a private equity firm, probably doesn't want to put too much cash into the trust fund because it wants to turn Chrysler around and sell it, Bragman said. "They don't necessarily want to contribute a large amount of money to a long-term solution when Cerberus is more than likely a short-term owner."

Job security could be a tough issue because Chrysler and its new owner, Cerberus Capital Management LP, would be reluctant to commit to huge investments when the company is looking at potentially cutting some (vehicle) models, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

As a bargaining chip, Chrysler could back off from new factory investments that it has announced and make them contingent on a new agreement, Cole said.

A short strike might not hurt Chrysler much. Five U.S. plants were scheduled to be shut down during the next two weeks due to lower market demand for their products. The shutdowns were expected to last one or two weeks.

A short-term strike of up to three weeks would have little effect on the company, which has sufficient inventory to continue selling most of its vehicles, said Jesse Toprak, chief economist for the auto research site Edmunds.com.

"They might actually even benefit from it," Toprak said.

There probably are several readers of this blog who are thinking that Union workers are overpaid, spoiled, & otherwise lazy, and probably deserve an unpaid "time-out." Considering that the media jumps all over stories of Union worker malfeasance and misdeeds, it is easy to understand that sentiment. But lets think about a couple of items for a couple of minutes.

Think of the last time you have read or seen reports of executive "golden parachutes" for managers and CEOs that drove a company on the verge of or into bankruptcy, but still get paid multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses? How about obscene salaries of company executives running companies that complain about sub-standard profits for the quarter, and the need to cut costs (usually labor)? I guarantee you hear more about those than the average Union worker screwing up.

How about the way Walmart treats its workers? I saw a program on one of the pay cable channels that showed Walmart encouraging it's workers to apply for state Medicaid programs for their healthcare. And Walmart would not have any of its hourly employees work over 32 hours a week, otherwise they could be classified as full time workers and be eligible for full-time benefit packages.

Perhaps the way I look at a Union is simplified: To negotiate on the behalf of employees fair wages and benefits, and to prevent abuses of those same employees by the company employing them. The Union is not to run the company.

I think that I can speak (or write) for the majority of Union workers is that we want a fair wage for the work that we perform. You, the reader, probably think that you are being underpaid in your current job, and could always use a little more.

But I can also understand the resentment of the Union protecting the goof-offs, thieves, and idiots that bring the reputation of the rest of the hard-working Union Membership down. I have a couple of these people in my Unit that I wouldn't trust to shine my shoes, but in many ways, it is Management's fault for a) hiring them in the first place, and b) not taking disciplinary action to either train and/or fire them. I also blame the Union for allowing such actions to occur. Personally, I would like to see the Union adopt a Guild mentality - if a person doesn't stay productive and qualified for the job, then that person should be demoted or let go, i.e., they must earn that position. If the Unions are to remain relevant in today's business economy, they will need to adapt to the needs of that economy.

A comment about the timing of this potential strike: The timing for a strike couldn't be worse. Those workers who have been laid off due to plant shutdowns to reduce inventory are still being paid up to 95% of their normal wages by Chrysler. A strike would mean that they would not get that pay, but would receive strike pay (which is significantly less). A strike would actually save Chrysler money since Chrysler would not have to pay those wages, and would hurt the UAW workers. I think our Union Leadership screwed up big time on this issue. Chrysler has a financial incentive, although small, in allowing a strike to proceed.

I can see a strike being called Wednesday, possibly lasting around a week or less. I hope that it doesn't come to that, but we'll see what happens.

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