10/19/07

Big union local rejects Chrysler deal 4-1

Workers at Chrysler's North Assembly plant in Fenton voted overwhelmingly against a proposed national labor contract, a sign that the United Auto Workers union national leadership faces opposition in efforts to approve a proposed four-year contract with the automaker.

Members of UAW Local 136, which represents about 2,000 workers who build Dodge Ram pickups, voted by about a 4-to-1 margin against the agreement. More than 1,400 members cast ballots.

All eyes now are on UAW Local 110, which represents workers at the adjacent South Assembly plant. They vote today and Saturday on the contract, which has been criticized for not providing sufficient job security for Chrysler workers.

Combined, the two locals represent about 10 percent of approximately 48,000 Chrysler workers voting on the contract. To be ratified, the contract must receive a majority of votes nation­wide.

UAW national officials traveled from Detroit to drum up support for the contract. But many union members belonging to Local 136 voted and left the union hall Thursday without even listening to the officials.

"I don't have a very good feeling about it," said Paul Wortham, 46, who works in environmental services in the North plant. He was one who

arrived with his decision made based on details of the contract distributed by union officials this week.

"There wasn't one particular item that I didn't like," he said, explaining his "no" vote. "It was pretty much the whole thing."

Mary Pryor, 44, who works on the door assembly line and also voted against the contract, was more specific.

"I don't like the idea of the union taking care of the benefits," she said.

Pryor was referring to the proposed benefits package that is anchored by a union-run trust fund for retiree health care, known as a Voluntary Employees' Beneficiary Association. The trust fund allows Chrysler to unload billions of dollars in retiree health care liabilities off its books.

Joe Shields, president of the UAW Local 110, called for his members to educate themselves about the proposed contract at local informational meetings today. Voting lasts from 4 a.m. today to 4 a.m. Saturday.

UAW Local 110 represents more than 3,000 active members who assemble the Chrysler Town & Country minivan and the Dodge Grand Caravan minivans at the South plant.

The Post-Dispatch reported that the Local 110 delegation joined a few other locals and voted against the proposed contract at Monday's national meeting of local leaders in Detroit. The national leaders approved the contract before submitting it to the general membership for a vote.

But Shields emphasized that each member should carefully review the contract.

"I don't tell (the membership) how to vote," Shields said Thursday.

"You go down and listen to the information meeting," he said. "I haven't been telling them not to support it."

It is too early to tell if local dissent will be echoed nationally. Historically, St. Louis's auto unions are known for dissenting, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Cole said he thought this contract will pass at the national level, but that it may be closer than the two-thirds approval earlier this month by General Motors Corp. employees OK'd a contract proposal. He said that's partly because Chrysler offered far fewer long-term guarantees about production plans than GM did.

"It is unfortunate that Chrysler is not in a position to guarantee more investments, but the fact is they are not," Cole said. "They do not have enough products that are profitable enough."

The national vote may not wrap up until Wednesday, according to the Detroit News.

But local workers like Pryor were not sympathetic to their employer — or specifically to the company's owner, Cerberus Capital Management.

"Cerberus says they can't afford (to leave the health plans) alone, but they knew what they were getting into when they bought the company," she said. "If we end up going out on strike again, so be it."

(stltoday.com)

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