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Deadline looms: Will auto union pragmatism help strike a deal?

With the auto union's contract set to expire at midnight, some members see cooperation with the automakers as essential to the union's survival given the industry's recent challenges.

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However, recently elected UAW president Bob King has suggested he opposes repealing the two-tier system. He says performance-based bonuses help the industry by keeping fixed costs low, which benefits all by providing "long-term security."

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"People don't want a guillotine hanging over their head. They don't want to have to worry about whether they have a job tomorrow or not, or if their pension is secure, or if their health care is secure," Mr. King told the Detroit News last month.

Representatives for all three Detroit automakers, as well as the UAW, have not spoken publicly about the labor negotiations because of the sensitivity of the talks. The UAW and Ford agreed on Tuesday to extend the current four-year contract past the Wednesday deadline so they can keep talking for a few more days.

Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at the University of California at Berkeley, says the UAW is going through a "very painful period" as it fights a historic drop in membership – 76 percent from its peak in 1979 – and the effects of an economic downturn.

"The UAW is in no danger of disappearing anytime soon, but its authority as a voice at the bargaining table can be severely damaged depending on what it does going forward. So it's truly a turning point," Mr. Shaiken says. "A great contract today isn't going to be particularly meaningful if there's no jobs tomorrow."

Most agree that what makes these talks different from those in past years is King. The union president "is a different beast than his predecessors … this is not a fire-breathing guy," says Gerald Meyers, a business professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who knows King.

"Ask him what success means for the union and he'll say 'quality of product,' 'cost savings' – he'll say all the things that management talks about. I find that astounding," Mr. Meyers says.

Part of that geniality is King's desire to expand membership, especially by organizing workers at foreign-owned US plants. "This nice-guy talk would be a way to get in the door," Meyers says.

King is also pressing automakers to restart idle plants or to invest in others. "There are some places where deals could be made to bring more jobs," says Ms. Dziczek.

For GM and Chrysler workers, striking is not a possibility. Terms of the 2009 bankruptcy restructuring prohibit striking, leaving Ford as the only company the union is legally eligible to strike. If the union does reach an impasse with GM and Chrysler, binding arbitration is the next step.

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