UAW Strike on GM Hinges on Preserving Jobs The walkout against General Motors by the United Auto Workers is very much about trying to limit the relentless loss of union jobs at the company. GM has been shutting plants, laying off workers and moving some operations overseas as it tries to become more efficient in the global economy. The union says it wants assurances new jobs will go to Americans.
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UAW Strike on GM Hinges on Preserving Jobs

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

They've been on strike for just more than a day now, and here is what Ron Gettelfinger, head of the United Auto Workers, says it's all about.

Mr. RON GETTELFINGER (President, United Auto Workers): The number one issue here is job security. That's one of our primary concerns, talking about job creation. We're talking about product being committed into the plant.

BLOCK: In demanding job commitments for U.S. workers, Gettelfinger is trying to manage the greatest economic force of our era - globalization. And in a world defined by fierce competition, the most the union may be able to hope for is to hold on the jobs it has.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Detroit on the second day of the GM strike.

FRANK LANGFITT: There's a bumper sticker on a file cabinet at UAW Local 22 here that sums up the sense of siege. It reads: Out of a job yet? Keep buying foreign.

Mr. GEORGE McGREGOR (President, UAW Local 22): Isn't that the Pearl Harbor? It ain't coming up in the aircraft carrier.

LANGFITT: George McGregor is president of the local. He's talking about the Japanese, specifically Toyota, which has been draining General Motors of market share.

Wilbert Byrd(ph) is a small businessman who has three brothers in the union. He's here to offer moral support. Then, Byrd takes aim at another source of competition for all kinds of manufacturers - China.

Mr. WILBERT BYRD (Businessman): I don't have nothing against China. Stuffs that's been shipped out here - my shoes from China. Well, come on, save a little for us.

LANGFITT: Nelson Lichtenstein says that's what Gettlefinger's trying to do with this strike - save as many jobs as he can.

Lichtenstein is a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Dr. NELSON LICHTENSTEIN (Labor Historian, University of California Santa Barbara): I think that he's saying my job is to protect this generation of workers, and I plan to do it.

LANGFITT: But Gettelfinger is trying to do it against the company that today can build cars across the globe with workers who cost a lot less.

Maryann Keller is a longtime auto analyst, an author of a book on GM.

Ms. MARYANN KELLER (Auto Analyst; Author, "Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall, and Struggle for Recovery of General Motors"): We have a different General Motors. Well, today you have General Motors, building cars around the world, investing throughout the world, especially in the developing countries - Russia or China.

LANGFITT: Until yesterday, retiree health benefits had seemed to be the dominant issue in the contract talks. So it may have surprised some people that the union walked out over jobs. But Keller says job security has always been a huge concern. The autoworkers fought to protect jobs from automation. Now, it's trying to keep them from going overseas. But Keller thinks the company won't offer long-term job protection.

Ms. KELLER: Nor are they going to make out and out commitments about building specific models in the United States. The U.S. might turn out to be a very small market for a certain kind of vehicle, and the main market for that vehicle might be Europe.

LANGFITT: The union worries about jobs because it's lost so many. The last time it went on strike against GM in the 1970s, some 400,000 workers walked out.

Kim Bond(ph) works as an electrician at the Cadillac plant in Detroit. He was out picketing this morning.

Mr. KIM BOND (Electrician, Cadillac Plant): When I heard the other day that there's only 73,000 of us left, I couldn't believe it. I was just, like, in shock. But that's what it's come down to, you know?

LANGFITT: Lichtenstein, the labor historian, says it may be easy for some to view Gettelfinger as a modern King Canute, trying to hold back the tide of globalization. Instead, he sees Gettelfinger as a realist, with limited goals and a chance of reaching them. Some analysts say if GM can get big cost savings in this contract by offloading health care obligations to the union, it could continue to invest in the U.S.

As for Gettelfinger…

Dr. LICHTENSTEIN: It's not like he's going to, you know, he's creating a blueprint that will last for the rest of the century. But within the context of this generation of autoworkers, he has some prospects for assuring that they will have a sufficient income stream.

LANGFITT: And given the uncertainty of jobs in the era of globalization that may be enough for many GM workers.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Detroit.

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