- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

LANSING, Mich. | Brian Fredline hasn’t slept much in the past few days. His phone has been ringing off the hook with worried union members calling for reassurance - and details.

As president of the United Auto Workers Local 602, Mr. Fredline is in the tough position of offering hope against a cold reality check certain to have an impact on his 3,000 workers and some 6,000 retirees.

A bit of good news arrived late Tuesday when the UAW announced it had reached a tentative deal on concessions with the Big Three automakers - General Motors Corp, Chrysler LLC and Ford Motor Co. - that would change the landmark 2007 union contract.

The union said terms of the new agreement were being withheld pending completion of the overhaul of an employee benefits plan (VEBA) and ratification by members of the latest deal.

“Our vice presidents and bargaining committees are to be commended for doing the best job possible for our membership under these difficult circumstances. The solidarity, support and patience of our membership, active and retired, have been instrumental in helping all of us through these challenging and unprecedented times,” the Detroit-based UAW said.

Michigan auto workers expect their future will be painful - bankruptcy has been floated as an option - but the uncertainty of late has caused anxiety and fear, Mr. Fredline said.

“I think my membership is resigned to the fact that there will be changes and they will have a negative effect on their job security and their income,” he said, putting on his best diplomatic face. “They know it has to happen, but they aren’t sure how deep and how broad the impact will be.

“I hate to use the term resigned,” the 23-year GM veteran said of their future. “We certainly haven’t given up hope in our product and our ability to build a world-class vehicle.”

GM’s Saturn, Pontiac and some Jeep brands may fall by the wayside in restructuring plans, followed by a backlash from suppliers and dealers on the auto-making chain that would be without a business - and from many thousands of workers likely to be out of a job.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, whose constituency is in the heart of the auto industry, has beaten the bushes in Washington asking for help for the working man. He was back on the airwaves Tuesday with his impassioned defense of American labor.

He supports the Obama administration’s decision to form a task force to oversee auto company restructuring, but said he hopes lawmakers remember the value of manufacturing and why the nation must defend what it makes.

“What I want is a continuing strategic partnership where our government doesn’t accept failure,” Mr. Bernero said. “The main reason they are in the position they are in is the trade agreements. We have the most productive workers in the world, if they are given the chance to compete. And yet we leave our companies out there naked to compete against the world.”

He decried a double standard that offers plenty of cash with few stipulations for Wall Street, but not the same deal for the U.S. auto industry.

“Wall Street and Washington don’t understand an industry that makes something,” he said. “Wall Street, they don’t care about the American worker. Somebody has to put the worker first and commit … to a strategic partnership and manufacturing and make that work for the people.”

Mike Green, president of UAW Local 652 in Lansing, said he is confident about the UAW’s negotiations and believes that ultimately the union and the companies can put a deal together that will be viable for both. He said most people who are down on unions and the automakers don’t realize the trickle-down problems that will occur should a company like GM or Chrysler falter.

“It will flow down to the barbershop, the grocery store, the gas station,” he said of the related losses.

He said his membership is concerned about what the future holds, but that he is looking toward the new administration in Washington and a bounce from the recently passed stimulus to get his own industry moving again.

“We hope President Obama’s policies stimulate the economy. Middle-class Americans are the ones who make it move, but they have to be working to make it move.

“We are in this thing together,” he added. “Bankruptcy is a worst-case scenario. People don’t want to buy a car from a company that said it’s going bankrupt … people are worried about their warranty and service. Even if they did go into Chapter 11 for restructuring, you are going to lose some market share. Hopefully, what they are putting together at the table keeps us out of that.”

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