With a Saturday midnight deadline approaching, the United Auto Workers union is bargaining for more than just wages and benefits. Its very survival is on the line.
In the talks, which will also send a signal about the health of the American labor movement, the union is testing some tactics that differ from past years in important respects:
*The union may agree to a four-year rather than a three-year contract, offering carmakers an extra year of labor harmony. It would be a sign of how the UAW's new president, Stephen Yokich, is rewriting the union's rule book.
*In another strategem that caught everyone off guard, Mr. Yokich ordered talks to continue at each of the Big Three US carmakers, only last week naming Ford Motor Company as the lead company with which a "pattern" agreement would be sought.
*And, rather than name the lead company, Ford, as a target for a potential strike if talks break down, the phrase "strike target" was banished. "Our members didn't elect us to go out on strike," Yokich said. "They elected us to bring them an agreement."
This week's bargaining in America's highest-profile manufacturing industry reflects the broad challenges organized labor faces in an era of declining membership and corporate restructuring.
All eyes, for now, are focused on Ford. Though union leaders have clamped a tight lid on the talks, they've made no secret they're demanding extensive job security provisions, including new limits on outsourcing - the transfer of work from Big Three factories to outside suppliers, many of them non-union. Sources close to the negotiations say the UAW also wants a guaranteed annual raise.
This year has been one of breaking precedent. Talks began on a normal note nearly three months ago. UAW bargainers sat down separately with each of the Big Three, and then, late in August, rallied to select a strike target, or lead company in the talks. Chrysler Corp. was considered the most likely pick because it has the strongest balance sheet of the US-based automakers. And, since it does relatively little in-house parts production, it appeared most willing to accept limits on future outsourcing. General Motors Corp. seemed the logical alternative. It's been slashing in-house parts production, closing or selling scores of plants, making it the place where the union could confront outsourcing head-on.
In retrospect, the selection of Ford should not have been a surprise, says Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Ford was an excellent choice," Mr. Shaiken says. "It has a reputation for being innovative on the issues."
Indeed, Ford often served as pattern-setter during the 1980s, when union and management negotiators came up with breakthrough job-security and productivity provisions. But Ford has another not-so-secret weapon, vice president and chief negotiator Peter Pestillo. A decade ago, he and Yokich squared off across the table but also developed a close friendship.
It appears that that trust is moving things forward. On Tuesday, Ford finance chief John Devine told analysts it might be possible to lock up a deal before Saturday's deadline.
Word leaking out from the bargaining table suggests a first-ever four-year contract is on the table. It would give union workers an annual 2 percent raise. But union sources say Yokich must also bring home some limits on outsourcing if he expects the rank-and-file to ratify a new agreement.
It's more than a matter of jobs, though plenty of them are at stake. Membership in the UAW has fallen from 1.5 million in 1979 to just 752,000 last year. And the number is continuing to erode as the Big Three implement new productivity programs. Then there's the issue of outsourcing. GM in particular plans to eliminate tens of thousands of jobs over the next few years, many by transferring work to suppliers. Where GM's union workers earn almost $45 an hour in wages and benefits, suppliers may pay as little as $10 to $15.
Declining membership also threatens the union's very survival. It means less political clout in Washington. Fewer members means the UAW has less money in its strike fund to back a future walkout. And if it can't protect its members' jobs, the UAW has little chance of organizing workers at the non-union "transplant" lines operated by foreign carmakers.
The union is in a box. If Ford comes up with strict limits on outsourcing, industry observers expect Chrysler will accept a similar "pattern" agreement. That would box in GM.
"They have a high-cost in-house component operation they have to make competitive," says auto analyst James Harbour of Detroit's Harbour and Associates. He says GM must continue to cut back if its to become competitive again and retain market share. GM can't guarantee jobs if its costs remain above the industry norm.