In Willow Springs, auto workers shrug, vote for GM pact

Comments on the new United Auto Workers contract with GM come rapid-fire at the factory exit. ''Very good. Very good,'' says one worker before roaring off onto the highway.

''I don't care for it myself,'' says another.

''We ratified it, but that's all,'' says a third.

This week, auto workers at the Fisher Body plant here voted on the proposed national contract between the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and General Motors. The contract provides for modest wage increases. It also establishes a $ 1 billion fund to pay full wages and benefits for employees laid off because of automation or because GM decides to buy parts overseas. Affected employees will draw from the fund until new jobs are found for them or until the fund runs out.

So far, voting among UAW locals has been close on what is seen as a crucial contract for the automaker and the union.

(At press time, unofficial tabulations by the Associated Press showed ''yes'' votes leading ''no'' votes nationwide by 73,456 to 51,725 (58.7 percent to 41.3 percent), with 73 of 149 locals reporting. Fifty-three locals approved and 20 rejected.)

In Willow Springs, the record will show that workers represented by Local 558 voted for the pact by almost a 2-to-1 margin. What the record won't show is the lack of enthusiasm that underlay the 911-to-522 vote.

''They didn't really like it, but they voted for it anyway,'' says Robert Milligan, a production worker at the Fisher Body plant here.

''Nobody,'' adds Edgar Bledsoe, a decoiler, ''could believe that they voted for it.''

In discussions with workers here, two significant trends appeared:

* Higher-paid skilled workers were more likely to vote for the contract than lower-paid production workers.

* Younger workers, apparently worried about unemployment, were more likely to vote in favor of the contract than were more-senior employees.

The differences in wage increases between skilled and production workers is not new to this contract, says Emmett Cyrus, president of Local 558, but he says it has been one of the biggest sources of dissatisfaction among the rank and file. While skilled workers voted overwhelmingly for the contract, he says, production workers were more evenly split.

Mr. Bledsoe doesn't find that surprising.

''That's the big problem,'' he says of the contract's wage provisions. They give ''more percentage to the skilled than the production worker.''

''We lose money,'' adds Jim Prcer, a production worker. He estimates that the proposed contract would give him a 15-cent-per-hour wage boost, compared with a hike of between 41 cents and 47 cents an hour for skilled workers.

Workers say another split in union voting occurred between older and younger workers.

''Younger people ... were afraid of more layoffs,'' says Robert James, a dispatcher with 20 years' seniority at GM. He voted against the contract, complaining that the company didn't return to workers what the workers sacrificed in the concessionary contract of 1982.

''I don't think it was what we were looking for,'' concedes one young worker who doesn't give his name. ''But we were on layoff for two or three years, so it's kind of hard to vote for a strike right now.''

Older workers seemed to like the pension provisions of the proposed contract.

''The pension agreement is the best we ever got,'' says Mr. Cyrus, who says it will enable some 400 workers to retire right away, if they want to.

But the most radical part of the proposed contract - a $1 billion job-security fund set up by GM to maintain the wages and benefits of displaced auto workers - has received a cool response here.

''A joke,'' says Bill Pollack, rolling his eyes. ''The last contract (in which) we got job security, I got laid off for six months.''

''It's too complicated,'' adds Mr. Milligan. ''It'd take a law degree to understand it.''

''It's a very complex thing,'' Cyrus concedes. ''Over a period of years you have to work it out.''

But ''it will benefit our younger workers for years to come,'' he adds.

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