- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

The nation’s Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers union, facing midnight expirations of their labor contracts, kept up closed-door talks yesterday aimed at nailing down new agreements.

Officials of the UAW, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group would not discuss the status of the talks or the potential for agreements.

“We’re still talking, and the deadline is midnight,” UAW spokesman Roger Kerson said. “That’s all I can say.”

Negotiators “have made a great deal of progress over the past several days and we are close to reaching a tentative agreement with General Motors,” Clyde Sims, co-chairman of the union’s negotiating committee, told union members in a telephone message.

Mr. Sims described the talks as “professional, efficient and respectful,” and instructed union members to continue working unless they were told otherwise.

A strike is unlikely, many observers say, because of a declining U.S. market share among the Big Three and continued domestic expansion from foreign automakers. Contract deadlines have been extended in previous talks.

The companies, the three largest U.S. automakers by sales, have proposed a wage freeze, increased health care payments by workers and possible job cuts, people familiar with the talks have said.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has said the union opposes any major changes to health care benefits, and car manufacturers reportedly are willing to keep them intact.

In exchange, manufacturers have lobbied for the right to move some workers from job to job and crack down on absenteeism.

On Saturday, Mr. Gettelfinger had left the door open for a simultaneous, three-way resolution, or a new pact with at least one of the companies, before their four-year contracts expired.

“Things change in the talks on a daily basis,” Mr. Gettelfinger told reporters.

The union and the three automakers, along with suppliers Delphi Corp. and Visteon Corp., have been negotiating since mid-July.

The new pacts will cover wages and benefits for 300,000 workers plus pension payments and benefits for a half-million retirees and their spouses.

The union has never reached simultaneous contract agreements with the Big Three. It typically has chosen one carmaker as the lead negotiator and used that pact as a model for the other two.

Mr. Gettelfinger said that the union chose one company as the lead negotiator soon after Labor Day, but he wouldn’t name it.

The automakers’ combined U.S. market share fell to an all-time monthly low in August, and some analysts and labor specialists have said the union probably will grant concessions on wages and pension benefits in exchange for the continuation of nearly cost-free health care.

The expiring contracts, negotiated in 1999 during better times for the industry, included 3 percent annual pay increases and a ban on plant closings.

Ford and Chrysler both are seeking to trim about 20,000 jobs from their work forces, said Sean McAlinden, an analyst at the Center for Automotive Research.

General Motors is seeking job cuts about half that size, and wants workers to pay more for health care, he added.

• Staff writer Tim Lemke contributed to this report.

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