Stances on 2 tough issues make long auto strike possible

Payne Chestley was at the union hall of Local 558 last Friday when word came through that the United Automobile Workers had not reached an agreement with General Motors.

The union's strategy to pressure the giant automaker: a selective strike affecting 13 plants.

Mr. Chestley's plant here in Willow Springs was not affected.

''I'm still happy to work,'' says Chestley, who has worked at this Fisher Body facility 16 years. But he adds, ''I was ready to hit the (picket) line last night.''

''I don't really want to see anything like that occur,'' says press operator Charles Hubbs about a strike. ''But if you've got to do it to make things happen....''

Much is at stake in this round of contract negotiations between the UAW and GM. So far, autoworkers appear upbeat.

''UAW must feel they've got something going,'' says Cleo Myles, a machine repairman who came back from a 71/2-month layoff only a year ago. Otherwise, the union would have walked out of the talks and called a general strike, he says.

But some industry observers are not so optimistic.

''The issues are very, very severe this time around,'' says John D. Connolly, investment strategist with Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. ''If there's a short strike , I'll be surprised.''

The reason, he says, is the debate over out-sourcing - the industry's increasingly common practice of getting cars and car parts from nonunion and, in many cases, foreign plants, where labor is cheaper.

GM is marketing a Japanese subcompact by Suzuki under the name Chevrolet Sprint. And it hopes to bring in more from Suzuki, as well as Isuzu of Japan and Daewoo in South Korea.

The automaker argues it needs this flexibility in out-sourcing to remain competitive.

''It's unreal,'' says Willow Springs press operator Hubbs, who increasingly is finding foreign-made machines in the plant. ''Even the stuff we use to make the material with is foreign.''

That is why the UAW, deeply concerned that out-sourcing will throw 500,000 US autoworkers out of work over the next few years, has made job security one of its central themes in this year's talks.

Many here at Willow Springs echo the security issue.

''For a lot of the young people, I think it's the biggest concern,'' agrees Art Zaragoza, a local union official and plant worker, who is nearing retirement.

''I like working for General Motors,'' explains Ron Daily, a young crib attendant. ''My family is fed. I'm happy with what I've got now. Any more is just that much more to be appreciated.''

But there are undercurrents of uncertainty.

''I'd like to see this plant stay open 30 years,'' says Mr. Myles. But he's not sure it will. The UAW may only be able to stop out-sourcing partly, he says.

According to Mr. Connolly, the union's selective strike strategy is an opening shot to pressure GM. If it isn't enough, the UAW could order a general walkout.

The union has suspended talks with Ford in order to concentrate on GM. The UAW contract with Chrysler expires next year.

After extensive bargaining over the weekend, both GM and the UAW were due to resume talks today.

The UAW doesn't necessarily have to call a general strike, analysts say. Even if the union sticks to its selective strikes against assembly plants, the impact ''could be deceptively severe,'' says Richard Chamberlin, an economist with the First National Bank of Chicago. It wouldn't take long before the automaker would have to close down the rest of its plants for lack of orders.

Although the Midwest would be hurt hardest by a GM shutdown, the overall impact shouldn't be overestimated, he adds. ''I don't think (an auto strike) would be enough to offset growth in the Midwest.''

Generally, the potential impact of auto strikes has declined over the years, Connolly says, because the auto industry has not grown in proportion to the rest of the economy. Also, other industries such as steel won't affected as much as in the past, Connolly says, because today's cars use less steel.

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