- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

1:12 p.m.

DETROIT (AP) — United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said the decline of the Big Three automakers and the rise of their Japanese competitors mean the union must accept big changes in its approach to health insurance and other contract issues.

Mr. Gettelfinger made the comment today in a report to the UAW’s constitutional convention, which was opening in Las Vegas.

The challenges facing General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group are greater than earlier crises, including Chrysler’s escape from bankruptcy in the 1970s, the recession of the early 1980s and GM’s record losses in 1992, Mr. Gettelfinger said.

“The challenges we face aren’t the kind that can be ridden out. They’re structural challenges, and they require new and farsighted solutions,” he said.

One of those challenges is that nonunion U.S.-based auto assembly plants made 1.1 million more vehicles in 2005 than in 2001, while production at unionized plants fell by 1.1 million, he said.

He said U.S. labor laws heavily favor management and allow employers, such as Japanese automakers that have opened plants in this country, to intimidate workers seeking to unionize.

The Big Three account for about 40 percent of the UAW’s 600,000 members. The union had about 1.5 million members in the late 1960s.

Mr. Gettelfinger said company executives share responsibility for the problems faced by the Big Three and by auto parts suppliers such as Delphi Corp., GM’s former parts division, which is under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

“Dig into the reasons behind this, and there’s no getting away from the fact that bad management decisions have played a role,” Mr. Gettelfinger said. “Missed market opportunities. Bland designs. Money that could have been invested in new products and plant improvements squandered in ill-conceived international ventures.”

Mr. Gettelfinger said the U.S. health care system “imposes an unfair burden on older, established employers” such as the Big Three. He called for universal health care to help the United States compete with foreign automakers, which do not yet have significant retiree health costs.

The relatively generous health care benefits that unionized autoworkers receive are “unsustainable” in the face of declining Big Three sales, he said. Mr. Gettelfinger defended the union’s decision to accept benefit cuts in talks with automakers this year.

“We can be proud that our union doesn’t shy away from making tough calls and even prouder of our members’ willingness to make sacrifices for those who preceded them and those who will follow,” he said.

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