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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Starting today, leaders of the United Auto Workers face some of their toughest talks in decades. They represent employees of an industry that has flagrantly lost billions of dollars. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors continue losing market share to foreign competitors, and they will be pressing the Union for major concessions.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Detroit.

FRANK LANGFITT: In the past, the United Autoworkers would go to the bargaining table here with a list of demands. And most times they came out ahead. Here's the Union's legendary president, Walter Reuther, talking to members back in 1961.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. WALTER REUTHER (Former President, UAW): And so we say a shorter workweek with no loss in pay. A shorter workday with no loss in pay. And we've talked about what we call an industrial sabbatical.

LANGFITT: Nobody's talking like that in Detroit these days. Instead of getting more for members, the union just hopes to protect what it's got. Ron Gettelfinger, the current president, spoke to members about negotiations earlier this year. The tone was completely different.

Mr. RON GETTELFINGER (President, UAW): It seems that we have had to climb one hill after another. These are challenging times.

LANGFITT: In fact, the union has lost more than 60,000 members to company buyouts in the last two years. And in May, DaimlerChrysler actually decided to pay - that's right - pay a private equity firm to take struggling Chrysler off its hands. Things are so bad nobody calls them the Big Three anymore.

Sean McAlinden is an economist with an auto industry think tank.

Mr. SEAN McALINDEN (Chief Economist, Center for Automotive Research): They're the Detroit Three, right? Because, let's face it, Toyota is now the second leading seller of vehicles in the United States.

LANGFITT: In earlier decades, when Detroit dominated the market, the United Auto Workers got great benefits for their members and built a virtual welfare state. Now the companies are trying to dismantle it. At the bargaining table, the firms are expected to target retiree health care. Last year, they spent $11 billion on it. That was for more than a million retirees and dependents.

McAlinden says those costs are a huge competitive disadvantage.

Mr. McALINDEN: Last we checked, Toyota still had less than 300 retirees in the United States.

LANGFITT: The Detroit companies want to get out of these much greater retiree obligations. One plan: put the money in a trust fund and let the union run it. Another way to cut costs: hire more new workers at much lower wages. Many UAW members are scared. At GM's Cadillac plant here rumors are swirling.

Mr. BRIAN HENRY (GM Worker): Everybody is a little shaky. Everybody is a little shaky. They really are.

LANGFITT: Brian Henry has just finished his shift. His face is still covered in sweat from the hot plant. He stopped by a nearby pizza place to pick up a couple of 40 ounce Bud Lights. Like other workers, Henry's resigned to concessions.

Mr. HENRY: We've been getting and getting and getting, and we may have to give a little back. It's as simple as that.

LANGFITT: But he also thinks if Gettelfinger, the union president, makes too many concessions, workers will reject the contract.

Mr. HENRY: Because there are a lot of old timers in here that don't want to give up what they've already got. We don't mind giving, you know, some, but if he's going to give up too much, I don't believe there's anything could get ratified.

LANGFITT: And yet the consequences of that could be even worse. Sean McAlinden, the economist, says the companies will just ship jobs to low-cost countries.

Mr. McALINDEN: They will have to offshore U.S. production as rapidly as possible. So I see a massive investment immediately in Mexico, Brazil, and China. And very few UAW jobs left by 2011.

LANGFITT: The talks start today at Chrysler. They open at Ford and GM on Monday. But the tough decisions won't come until September, when the contract is set to expire. In the final days, bargaining will go around the clock, stretching 24, 36 hours. During breaks, people will rest in their cars, nap on air mattresses, or just sleep on the floor. Tempers will be short.

Mr. DOUG FRASER (Former President, UAW): There's a great deal of profanity.

LANGFITT: That's Doug Fraser. He ran the Auto Workers in the early 1980s and remains in touch with leadership today.

Mr. FRASER: These are all sorts of blowups, pounding on the table. One of the things I remember is pick up all your notes and everything, stuff in your briefcase, as though you're going to walk out and then nothing happens; you have to take that stuff out of your briefcase again.

LANGFITT: No one is predicting how talks will turn out this time. But nearly everyone agrees there won't be a strike. With the union shrinking and the companies wounded, a strike could destroy both.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Detroit.

INSKEEP: Could be that Ron Gettelfinger has the hardest job in American labor today. And you can read a profile of the UAW president by going to npr.org.

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