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GM, Ford want more help from auto union

DETROIT -- The automakers got a little, and now they want a little more.

Last year, Ford and General Motors won health-care and other concessions from the United Auto Workers union. With those two still struggling to return to profitability and contract negotiations looming this fall, the automakers say they expect the union to make more sacrifices.

"We have open communication with the union," said Gary Cowger, executive vice president in charge of manufacturing and labor relations for General Motors, noting the dialogue between the automakers and the UAW for the last year. "The union recognizes the business model needs to change. We've gotten health-care and attrition [buyout offers] changes the last two years. The union is willing to listen to what needs to be done."

Cowger stopped short of detailing what automakers want.

"We aren't going to bargain in the press," he said.

UAW spokesman Roger Kerson echoed that, saying the union would have no comment on the automakers asking for more concessions.

"We aren't going to negotiate in the media," he said.

GM Chairman Rick Wagoner, however, was not as reluctant.

"We've made some big steps with labor union problems but we aren't going to reduce the gap to zero," he said of the estimated $1,500 added to each domestic vehicle to cover health care. That gives a huge cost advantage to the Japanese, who employ non-union labor at their U.S. plants. The government covers health care in Japan.

"There's a spirit of cooperation, but we're still at a disadvantage in postretirement health care," Wagoner said. "Japan still doesn't have to write a multibillion-dollar check like we do each year to cover retirees. And the jobs bank, of course, is an area of uncompetitiveness."

The jobs bank ensures employees of an idled plant continue to get paid.

Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford, echoed Wagoner on the cooperation but didn't mention what Ford hopes to get out of this year's contract.

"The union negotiations will be tough but I'm confident, very confident, we can all work together. The union understands we are all in this together," he said.

Such dialogue is what garnered Ford and GM another concession last year. Under the contract, the union was entitled to a $1 per hour cost-of-living raise, but it agreed the money would be put toward health-care costs, instead.

Even with such cooperation, Chrysler is still waiting for the UAW to bend. The union approved the givebacks when Ford and GM were posting hefty losses. At the time, however, Chrysler was posting profits and got nothing.

The company remains hopeful, according to President and CEO Tom LaSorda.

In the third quarter, Chrysler lost $1.5 billion and is expected to report a loss of $1.3 billion for the year, so UAW President Ron Gettelfinger is reconsidering.

"We didn't get concessions like GM and Ford, but Gettelfinger came back to us in December and asked for more financial information to review," LaSorda said. "We gave it all to them by Dec. 22 and now they have said they want more dialogue with us. Ron understands where we are at now."

LaSorda said Chrysler hopes to be more on a par with Ford and GM before talks officially open this fall.

Troy Clarke, president of GM's North American operations, said no one should expect anything precedent-setting, despite the union's sense of candor and urgency. "They have some rather liberal benefits now. To be precedent-setting would take changes that are really not attainable," he said.

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