UAW Members to Vote on New GM Contract

General Motors auto workers are returning to their jobs, after a two-day strike that shut down 82 GM facilities in the United States. At union halls and factory gates, there was a sense of relief that the strike is over. But there was also some uneasiness about the future. UAW workers will vote over the weekend on whether to ratify the new contract.

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JASON BEAUBIEN: I'm Jason Beaubien also in Detroit.

Many people here were surprised when the strike hit, and many were also surprised that it ended so quickly. At the headquarters of UAW Local 22 near GM's Hamtramck assembly plant this morning, workers said they were happy and relieved the walkout is over.

Local resident George McGregor(ph) summed up the mood.

Mr. GEORGE McGREGOR (Resident, Hamtramck, Michigan): We're joyful. We're excited and are ready to go back to work, and we're just anxious to find out what they are contracting (unintelligible).

BEAUBIEN: In the coming days, the UAW will lay out the details of the contract to its 73,000 members and try to persuade them that they should vote to ratify it. Twenty miles west of downtown Detroit, General Motors build the engines at a plant in Romulus, Michigan. Just over a thousand UAW members work at the site.

Bill Chenowski(ph) and Keith Richards(ph) are two of them. They're both skilled tradesmen who do machinery repair in the plant. Chenowski has been with GM for 32 years, Richards has been there for 38. They both say they're happy the strike ended quickly. They recognized the serious problems facing GM right now, and expect the contract will benefit the company far more than workers.

Even with givebacks, including the VEBA, the trust fund, under which the union takes over the responsibility for retiree health care, Richards thinks workers here will accept the deal, and he says, hopefully, GM can rebound.

Mr. KEITH RICHARDS (Employee, General Motors): I'm hoping that with this VEBA taking place that it takes something away that management can no longer whine about, and they can go on and start running the business like they're supposed to run the business.

BEAUBIEN: Richards and Chenowski talk passionately about getting the Romulus plant to run more efficiently, and they say they're sick of hearing that high-paid UAW workers are the root of GM's problems. Chenowski says the inefficiencies and mismanagement just on his shop floor alone are astounding, and he says management creates many of the systematic problems themselves and others they fail to fix.

Mr. BILL CHENOWSKI (Employee, General Motors): Oh, I can't begin to tell you how many different meetings you go. And we go down there and management sits down there and says, tell us what we can do, tell us - and we tell them. But, you know what, it goes, pft(ph), pft. It goes at one ear and out the other ear and it - and nothing that we ever say - do they ever use it. And it's, like, we get to the point - it's, like, why do you even bother us?

BEAUBIEN: He's also frustrated that work that he says should go to UAW members is being farmed out to contractors and outside firms. It's clear talking to Richards and Chenowski that the distrust that some, if not many, UAW members have on management runs deep. Even with that tension, these men predict that the rank and file will ratify the contract. But they warned, if pushed too far, the frustration of the union members could come spilling out. Chenowski says nothing wrangles workers at the engine plant more than the multimillion-dollar salaries and bonuses paid to executives at the struggling Detroit automakers.

Mr. CHENOWSKI: How do they justify millions of dollars of bonuses when they take away, when they want us to give back, when they want all the stuff, they want, want, want, want, want, because they run the company into the ground? How do you justify that? How do you justify that?

BEAUBIEN: So while the nationwide strike of 2007 quickly came to a close and both sides emerged from the bargaining table this morning saying they're happy. That happiness doesn't run very deep. Fixing that will be one of GM's big challenges in the years ahead.

General Motors, in a written statement, said the proposed new contract is a step in that direction. The company said the deal paves the way for GM to significantly improve its manufacturing competitiveness and strengthen its manufacturing base in the United States.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Detroit.

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