- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

DETROIT (AP) — United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger opened his union’s bargaining convention yesterday with a warning for companies: Just because we’ve cooperated in the past, don’t take that as a sign of weakness.

In a speech at the start of the two-day national bargaining convention in downtown Detroit, Mr. Gettelfinger said the union will fight companies at the bargaining table, in politics and “if need be on the picket line.”

Addressing 1,500 members from multiple industries who will help set the union’s overall bargaining priorities, a defiant Mr. Gettelfinger said the union does not want to strike, but will if necessary.

“We will do what we have to do,” he said. “Make no mistake about it. Collective bargaining is not collective begging.”

The convention delegates, from more than 800 UAW locals in the U.S. and Canada, weren’t expected to get into the nitty-gritty of what will be discussed with individual companies.

Still, crucial contract talks with the Big Three Detroit automakers loom. They begin officially this summer, although meetings already have started. The national UAW contract with automakers expires in September.

In his speech, Mr. Gettelfinger acknowledged that the UAW has faced continuous challenges since its last bargaining convention in 2002, citing DaimlerChrysler AG’s February announcement that it would consider selling its Chrysler unit.

“We have equity and hedge funds circling our head as never before,” he said of potential buyers for Chrysler.

Mr. Gettelfinger accused the funds of “stripping and flipping” companies they buy.

“Our union is on guard to protect the best interests of our membership,” he said.

But it was concessions of the past, and potentially of the future, that rankled some union members.

Outside the convention center where Mr. Gettelfinger spoke, about 20 members and retirees carried signs in protest.

One delegate, Mike Parker, a worker at Chrysler’s Sterling Heights, Mich., assembly plant, made a motion to change today’s agenda to set aside time for organizing local leaders to fight back against companies that are demanding concessions plant by plant.

“The problem is the locals are being left to bargain by themselves in dealing with the companies,” he said.

The motion was defeated by a voice vote, but others made similar speeches about zero concessions and bringing an end to a two-tier wage scale in which new hires are paid far less than older workers.

The UAW’s main employers — GM, Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. — have lost billions of dollars during the past two years and are expected to demand major concessions from the UAW in contract talks this summer.

Among the issues are health care costs for active and retired workers, wages, work rules and the jobs bank, in which laid-off workers get most of their pay.

Mr. Gettelfinger said nothing directly yesterday about potential concessions to auto companies, although he said the union would not respond to rumors or speculation from analysts and others about what the UAW should do.

He called for universal health care for all, as well as for fair trade agreements.

The convention comes as membership in the union and others nationwide continues to decline.

UAW membership peaked in 1979 at 1.5 million, but has been dropping since. The union said it had an average of 576,000 members in 2006, down from 598,000 in 2005.

Last year, the number of unionized workers in the U.S. fell by 326,000 to 15.4 million. Unions represented 12 percent of U.S. workers last year, down from 12.5 percent in 2005.

According to the Department of Labor, the union membership rate has dropped steadily from 20.1 percent of the work force in 1983.

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