GM's Crossroads

The assembly lines are gearing up again at General Motors plants. But there will have to be more movement on the issues underlying the recent strike before the company or the United Auto Workers (UAW) union can take much heart.

This week's settlement made some progress, notably in its provision for more regular, high-level talks between union and management. The tally of 16 factory-level strikes over the past five years speaks for itself: The two sides have been about as communicative as opposing football linemen waiting for the snap of the ball.

The eight-week strike was probably the costliest in US history: more than $2 billion in losses to GM and $1 billion in lost wages to workers. The disagreements involved fundamental questions - questions that will resurface with a vengeance as the UAW's national pact with GM expires next year.

That negotiation need not lead to more walkouts and heated rhetoric. For all their differences, GM's management and workers share vital interests. GM's domestic rivals, Ford and Chrysler, have shown that even in the age of downsizing and outsourcing the automobile business doesn't have to be riven with labor tension.

GM has no choice but to follow its competitors in closing unneeded plants and tailoring its work force to new, more efficient manufacturing methods. The union leadership certainly knows this lies down the road. Understandably, it wants to hold on to as many jobs as possible in the process.

These are things that should be negotiable among intelligent people who understand the other party's point of view. Trust takes root in such an environment. And building trust with its employees should be just as important to GM as producing a new line of profitable light trucks.

Continuing down the present road of union-management friction can only mean GM's dwindling market share will dwindle further. Buyers readily shift loyalties when strikes make familiar brands scarce. And buyers have greater faith in products made by satisfied workers.

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