UAW Delays Strike Vote at Delphi

April 9, 2006

 

 

 

 

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The United Auto Workers is holding off on scheduling a strike vote among workers employed by Delphi Corp. as it tries to develop a strategy for fighting the rising demands for concessions.

Complicating the search for a strategy is the fact that the union is now going through a major leadership change that will lead to the retirements of three of its most experienced negotiators. Richard Shoemaker, Nate Gooden, and Gerald Bantom are scheduled to retire. Shoemaker heads the union’s bargaining team at GM and Delphi; Gooden is responsible for negotiations with the Chrysler Group; and Bantom handles talks with Ford. Gooden also is a member of the DaimlerChrysler supervisory board.

The leadership changes will take place will take place at one of the most critical junctures in the union’s history. Ron Gettelfinger, the UAW president, isn’t expected to make any announcements about specific replacements for Shoemaker, Gooden, and Bantom until the very end of the union’s quadrennial constitutional convention in June.

Gettelfinger has said the union’s basic goal is to keep well-paying jobs, complete with pensions and health insurance, in the United States. However, it remains obvious that there are real divisions within the union over what the union should do next, according to one top-level executive in serious discussions with the union in recent weeks.

UAW spokesman Paul Krell said the union is keeping its options open, particularly in the critical talks with Delphi, which seem to be moving inexorably towards some kind of dramatic climax this summer.

“We’re not going to be tied to an arbitrary date on the calendar,” Krell said. “We haven’t scheduled (the strike vote) yet. If it’s needed we want to make sure it has maximum impact,” he added.

Shoemaker recently told local union officers from Delphi plants that the union could put together a strike vote quickly, if it became necessary.

Meanwhile, the federal bankruptcy judge in New York has given preliminary approval for Delphi to offer early retirement to 13,000 workers. Delphi is expected to open the early retirement window as soon as possible.

Krell added that no one doubts the union has the legal right to strike if Delphi elects to terminate the current labor contract for remaining workers. Even Delphi officials agree the UAW and other unions have the right to strike if Delphi’s current labor contract is terminated via court action.

However, Delphi spokesman Lindsey Williams said company executives believe it’s still possible and in the best interest of all concerned to reach a negotiated settlement.

Last week, Delphi petitioned the bankruptcy judge to set aside its current labor contracts with the UAW and five other unions. A hearing on the petition is scheduled for May 9-10 in New York. Judge Robert Drain is then expected to take about 30-45 days to rule.

“The judge’s decision is binary. He either says, ‘yes, we can terminate the contract' or ‘no,’” Williams said. Delphi then has ten days to terminate the agreement.

The contract has a no-strike clause, but voiding the contract would open the door to a possible strike by the union, according to John Murphy, the auto analyst for Merrill Lynch.

Williams also acknowledged the termination could trigger a strike. However, he emphasized that Delphi’s negotiators don’t believe that the discussions will actually reach the point where the contract is terminated.

Delphi chairman and chief executive Steve Miller said in an appearance at the Detroit Economic Club this week that Delphi’s petition was more of an insurance policy than a threat.

There is ample time and opportunity to reach a “consensual” revision in the current contract, Miller emphasized during his speech. Over the years, union leader Gettelfinger has shown a natural disposition toward negotiation rather than confrontation.

However, the concessions demanded by Delphi are unprecedented. Too, the existence of a small but vocal anti-concession group among Delphi workers has complicated the discussions.

Unionized Delphi employees earn about $27 per hour and Delphi officials have insisted since the company filed for bankruptcy last October that it can no longer afford to pay such lofty wages.

Delphi has offered to pay $22 per hour starting in July and then reduce wages again to $16.50 by September 2007. The union, however, has noted the proposal depends on General Motors agreeing to subsidize part of the wages.

GM has not agreed to any kind of subsidy, union officials said.

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