George Will

But now Gettelfinger insists, ``You can't cut your way to profitability," and he says the UAW is ready to dig in its heels. He says the UAW adds value to members' lives by limiting subtractions -- damages done by attrition and bankruptcy. In September the UAW stopped negotiating concessions with Chrysler because it considered the company's problems less than severe, but is now re-examining the company's condition.

Gettelfinger resents workers paying the price of management blunders, one of which, he says, was Ford's mismanagement of the Taurus model, the last of which rolled off the line in October. He says Taurus would have had ``years of life left'' if Ford had constantly refined it, as Toyota has done with the Camry.

``Obscene" is Gettelfinger's description of executives' pay and retirement protections at Delphi, the giant auto parts manufacturer that entered bankruptcy protection in 2005. He believes bankruptcy has become a management tool by which companies shred labor contracts, and he warns that if Delphi tries to void its contract with the UAW, that ``will be the biggest mistake they ever made."

But more than 14,000 of Delphi's 24,000 UAW employees have accepted early retirement or buyout offers. Furthermore, the UAW has swallowed hard and accepted a two-tier wage system -- lower wages ($14 an hour rather than $27) for new hires.

Ford, GM and Chrysler might seek such wage systems in the coming contract negotiations. The UAW allowed Chrysler to hire temporary workers -- $18 an hour; they can be fired at any time; they are not eligible for the jobs bank -- at its Belvidere, Ill., plant.

The jobs bank was negotiated in 1984 on the assumption that, in the cyclical automobile business, laid-off workers would eventually be rehired. Workers in the job bank receive a small portion of their pay plus unemployment benefits for 48 weeks, but then are restored to full pay while unemployed. Gettelfinger vows to fight to retain this.

Recently Gettelfinger suggested that the UAW, which soon will be more than two-thirds smaller than it was when it had 1.5 million members 20 years ago, might consider merging with another union. A UAW card no longer means that life cannot be hard.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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