GM vote: cold water on concessions?

Employer hopes that union cost-saving compromises will spread out from the auto industry suffered a setback as General Motors (GM) Corporation workers came within 9,378 votes last week of upsetting a concession-filled contract negotiated by the United Auto Workers.

The near-turndown of the GM settlement is certain to influence union negotiations in rubber, electrical manufacturing, and other industries. Union negotiators talk of unrealistic expectations among employers that could bring on serious bargaining problems. The unions' rank and file members could, according to some observers, resist giving up pay and other gains for the next two to three years.

UAW and GM officials had hoped for an overwhelming victory, perhaps one equalling the 76 percent approval given by Ford Motor Company auto unionists a few weeks ago. Instead, the vote was the closest in UAW history. If 5,000 workers had cast ballots for rejection instead of approval, the contract covering 320,000 active workers and 150,000 on layoffs would have been turned down.

Douglas A. Fraser, president of UAW, said the very thin margin of victory ''doesn't come as a shattering disappointment.'' The new contract will be signed formally April 16, but takes effect immediately. Union members will live up to its terms, he said, no matter how they voted.

The agreement that grants something over $2.5 billion in wage and other concessions was ratified 114,468 to 105,090, a bare 52 percent vote of approval. Dissident locals in New Jersey and other parts of the country talked over the weekend of challenging the results. But the approval is expected to withstand legal tests.

The big difference between the strong vote of approval by the Ford workers and the slight victory for the GM contract can be attributed in large part to the different attitudes of workers towards the two companies. Ford workers accepted the fact that their financially troubled employer badly needed help to survive the deep auto industry recession. GM unionists looked at their employers' 1981 profit of $333 million and apparently doubted the necessity of concessions--including a wage freeze, a deferal of cost of living adjustments, and the loss of some paid holidays.

There was another underlying reason for the different voting patterns. Ford workers have traditionally had relatively good relations with their company, while there has been an historic hostility between union memebers and management at GM, the country's No. 1 auto maker.

Mr. Fraser said in Detroit that the closeness of the vote ''makes it clear that this was a very difficult and painful step'' for GM unionists. He conceded that the large negative vote mirrored the hourly workers' resentment of concessions to a profitable company, but defended the concessions as ''an attempt to address our problems in these very troubled times.'' GM profits, he added, were largely ''paper profits,'' not the result of auto making.

The future of the trend towards concessions will be tested now in further major negotiations. UAW and American Motors will resume contract talks this week , with concessions some of the bargaining points. The United Rubber Workers (URW) and the B.F. Goodrich Company are now pressing negotiations toward an April 20 deadline with URW strongly resisting ''givebacks'' to employers. The International Union of Electrical Workers (IUEW) and General Electric also are at the bargaining table with IUEW saying militantly that it will not go along with ''auto-type concessions.''

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