Optimism at Chrysler-UAW talks. Negotiations began early to nip tension in the bud

Although relations between union and management have been rocky of late, bargainers for the Chrysler Corporation and the United Automobile Workers Union are optimistic they can wrap up their latest round of contract talks in a matter of weeks. That optimism has been bolstered by a statement from a Chrysler official that future bonus arrangements will apply to senior management as well as union members.

Normally, auto industry negotiations only take place every three years, but in the case of Chrysler, financial hard times - and the company's subsequent recovery - have changed the rules. Indeed, in an unusual step, the two sides agreed to open negotiations several months ahead of schedule in an effort to put an early end to the friction that has threatened to reverse years of efforts to improve union/management relations.

For the typical Chrysler worker, just how well relations can be improved will be measured in terms of an improved paycheck. After years of making concessions to help Chrysler stave off bankruptcy, the company's 61,000 UAW workers are looking to finally regain parity with their counterparts at the Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation.

In fact, both sides say they will be likely to base the eventual Chrysler contract on the pattern agreements reached last year at Ford and GM, settlements providing workers at those two companies with pay increases and job protection provisions. ``There's only one real issue, as far as workers are concerned - plant closings,'' stresses Ron Glantz, an auto analyst with Montgomery Securities in San Francisco.

While the provisions contained in the pattern agreements will not eliminate all plant closings, they would make it far more difficult for Chrysler to shutter any of its factories in the future.

Another key provision certain to be included in the Chrysler contract is a profit-sharing program. In a good year, this can add thousands of dollars to a worker's pay. In a bad year, it can save the company hundreds of millions of dollars when compared with a fixed pay increase.

In one of the few big surprises likely to come out of the Chrysler talks, company chief negotiator Anthony St. John announced that the automaker would link future profit-sharing payments to the bonuses paid the company's senior executives. During any year in which weak profits mean ``profit sharing is not paid,'' he said, ``senior bonuses [will] also not be paid.''

The proposal would not directly link the size of union and management bonuses, but it is still a significant step, according to several UAW officials, and it gets at an issue that has long concerned the union.

Nowhere is the issue more clear than at General Motors, where weak profits have resulted in no profit-sharing checks for the past two years, even though top managers have continued to receive their bonuses.

With a well-defined pattern to work from, ``we hope to wrap things up in two to three weeks,'' UAW president Owen Bieber said Monday after the first day of contract talks.

There is still the possibility of trouble. Labor/management relations at Chrysler have been tense in recent months. And, in fact, these negotiations are taking place months ahead of schedule because both sides felt the need to quickly overcome a series of recent confrontations, including the aborted attempt by Chrysler to sell its Acustar Inc. component subsidiary, and the decision to close an assembly plant in Kenosha, Wis.

Insiders also warn that personality issues could come into play, as the result of what is being described as a simmering feud between Mr. St.John and his union counterpart, UAW vice-president Marc Stepp.

``Any individual differences have been set aside,'' Mr. Stepp insists.

Perhaps, but Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at San Diego, believes that on a broader level there could be trouble, since ``you can't turn anger on and off like a faucet.'' Mr. Shaiken believes the company has lost much of the goodwill it once enjoyed from its employees and that unless it offers them a good contract, they could vote it down, as they have done before.

Still, most observers believe that with the pattern already established, Mr. Bieber's timetable for a peaceful resolution is a realistic one.

Both sides realize that ``they are going down the river in the same boat,'' says David Cole, head of automotive studies at the University of Michigan. ``There is a recognition they could do serious damage if either one kicks a hole in the bottom of the boat.''

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