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Published: Saturday, 3/7/2009

UAW s brave new world

FOR many years, the pattern of auto labor negotiations was nearly as stylized as a ballet.

The United Auto Workers union would pick one of the Big Three and demand a contract that specified that workers would get more, often for less work. More pay, more holidays, better working conditions. The company would counter-offer, and then the bargaining would begin.

They d pound the table. One side might walk out. The union might, every few years, even go on strike for a few days or weeks. But in the end, they would sign a contract, and the workers would end up getting more. Less than their first demands, maybe, but more than before. Then the other two automakers would sign on to the deal. (There was a reason they called it pattern bargaining.) That was how the game was played.

Until reality, and the world market, finally caught up with Detroit.

It is a different world these days, a world of a steadily shrinking automotive labor force and necessary givebacks. Last month, Ron Gettelfinger, UAW president, sent letters to remaining Ford hourly workers urging them to vote for concessions that include giving up cost of living pay increases and cash bonuses, plus one paid holiday and some unemployment benefits. Without substantial restructuring and change from all stakeholders ... Ford cannot survive, he told his members.

There was a time when any such agreement would have been contemptuously dismissed by the rank and file. Now, however, returns from various locals indicate they seem to be approving it, overwhelmingly. One union member who voted said he and his brothers were relieved, because they had feared the concessions would be even worse.

Meantime, General Motors and Chrysler are hinting they will demand deeper givebacks. If this hurdle can be cleared, union members then have a new worry: the future of retiree health care.

Two years ago, the UAW agreed to take on the burden, in return for billions from the companies that would amount to perhaps 70 percent of their projected total costs. There were already fears the plan would be undercapitalized. Now, the automakers want to put in even less, for a simple reason: They don t have the cash.

The union reluctantly is now allowing Ford to use the company s stock for up to half their required contribution. That would have been fine in 2007. Today, however, most of Wall Street believes all the automakers stock is essentially worthless.

The ranks of unionized autoworkers and retirees are facing an entirely new world today, one for which they are going to need to be considerably brave.

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