UAW Meets With Automakers This Week

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This week, the United Automobile Workers is kicking off negotiations with Detroit's Big Three automakers. The round began with Chrysler on Monday. Wednesday, negotiators had their ceremonial handshake at GM. The same will happen at Ford on Friday.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: This week, leaders of the United Auto Workers Union are beginning contract talks with each of the three American car companies. It's the first new set of contracts since the economic collapse and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on what's at stake for both sides.

SONARI GLINTON: It's handshake week in Detroit. Bob King, the head of the UAW, shook hands with Chrysler leaders on Monday. He'll do the same with Ford leaders on Friday. Today, the handshake was at GM's Hamtramck plant where they make the Chevy Volt.

BOB KING: What a great way to start negotiations. This plant is really symbolic to me of the new General Motors, the new relationship between the UAW and General Motors.

GLINTON: There's a lot of talk at events like this about cooperation and new relationships and about the UAW and the car companies' new leases on life. Here's Cathy Clegg. She is GM's vice president for labor relations.

CATHY CLEGG: We also recognize that we've been given a second chance and you don't often get to say that. We take it seriously. We know it's our responsibility to follow through on that second chance and we want to show the world what we can do when we do work together.

GLINTON: Away from the speeches and the handshaking, there are real issues at stake. Even in this tough economy, Ford, Chrysler and GM are making money. To keep making money, car company leadership wants to control labor costs. Union leaders want a bigger share of the profits the companies have been making from cutting labor costs. Meanwhile, when you talk to auto workers, you sense something else altogether.

BRAD RENN: I'm happy with the contract the way it is right now.

GLINTON: Brad Renn works at GM's Hamtramck plant.

RENN: I think that our wage is good. I don't want any raises or anything like that. I just want the company to do better, you know.

GLINTON: Rem says he's very aware of how close GM came to the edge. His coworker, Jamie Conn, says she wants the union to be careful.

JAMIE CONN: I'm not angry that we made concessions about other companies. I just would like to see it come back little by little until, you know, we're profitable and it's a good workplace.

GLINTON: The one thing Conn does want changed is the two tier pay system that started during bankruptcy. It allows GM and Chrysler to hire certain workers at sharply lower rates.

CONN: These employees come in here and they do the same amount of work for half the money. It is very hard work, very hard work. You seriously sacrifice your body for the money you make.

GLINTON: There will likely be tough talk about the two tier system at the bargaining table, but as for one of the most traumatic periods in the industry's history, these talks are likely to be the most cordial in memory, beginning with the handshakes. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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