10/7/07

UAW-GM rejection indicates emerging opposition

United Auto Workers union members in Wentzville rejected Friday a new national labor contract with General Motors Corp., according to a worker there and a former UAW regional director. However, officials for the chapter, UAW Local 2250, would not comment on the outcome. Chapter spokesman Tom Brune confirmed only that voting, which began Thursday, ended around 9 a.m. Friday.

Local 2250 represents more than 2,000 members who assemble the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana passenger vans at GM's plant in Wentzville. Even if the local chapter has rejected the contract, it would have no direct impact on plant operations. A national strike is possible only if a majority of the 73,454 GM UAW members also vote against the contract. Voting is expected to conclude Oct. 10.

Various media reports say the contract is passing by a wide margin nationally, although workers from at least two plants besides Wentzville have voted against it.

Wentzville's votes could indicate emerging opposition, said Jerry Tucker, retired director for the UAW Region 5, which includes Missouri. Tucker was among retirees who spoke out against the tentative labor contract approved last week by national UAW leaders.

Tucker said proposed changes to health benefits unnerved the plant's aging work force. The new contract includes a benefits package proposal anchored by a trust fund for retiree health care, known as a Voluntary Employees' Beneficiary Association, or VEBA.

GM, which has about 340,000 retirees and spouses, wants to form the VEBA to get $51 billion in retiree health care debt off its books. The VEBA would be run by an independent board overseen by the UAW.

Though they don't get to vote on the contract, retirees such as Tucker have made known their fears that if the VEBA ran dry, workers and retirees alike would be left to pay their own health costs. The UAW's national leadership is supporting the VEBA because it protects retirees' benefits in the event of a downturn or bankruptcy at GM.

If UAW members do reject the proposed contract, there likely would be a new round of negotiations rather than a strike, said Harley Shaiken, labor specialist at the University of California at Berkley.

Shaiken said the signs point toward ratification of the contract offer.

"The national council of local union officers voted for the contract, and if it were going to go down, you'd have expected there to have been dissent there," Shaiken said. "Many may be voting 'no' now, but they may not be prepared for a strike."

(tradingmarkets.com)

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