Not this time. The UAW is barred from striking GM and Chrysler and hasn't walked out at Ford in decades.
With smiles and handshakes for the cameras, negotiators for the United Auto Workers Union and Chrysler Corp. will today begin the challenging task of coming up with a new contract for more than 20,000 hourly U.S. autoworkers. Later this week, the situation will repeat itself at both Ford and General Motors.
The scene may be familiar – occurring every three to four years for the last three-quarters of a century – but seldom has so much been riding on the outcome. Still struggling to emerge from the domestic auto industry’s worst downturn since the Great Depression, the viability of Detroit’s Big Three is a lot less certain than recent profits might suggest. But the UAW itself has to worry about the future.
Consider Chrysler where there are now about 23,000 UAW-represented workers – a decline of nearly 50,000 in less than a decade. A recent filing with the federal government revealed total membership dropped to 376,612 at the end of 2010 – including union-represented jobs in non-automotive industries. The UAW’s ranks peaked in 1979, when it counted 1.53 million dues-paying members.
“The current situation is not sustainable,” warns Harley Shaiken, a long-time student of the UAW and a professor at the University of California – Berkley.
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So, both sides know that their fates may ride on what happens between now and mid-September, when talks are scheduled to wrap up. The question is whether these negotiations can produce settlements that keep Detroit competitive while also satisfying the workers who will eventually have to approve the agreements. What we may see, many observers are betting, will be contracts that contain expanded profit-sharing packages that more closely link workers’ remuneration to the health of the automakers than ever before.