6-hour UAW strike puzzling

The Baltimore Sun

CHICAGO -- With its two short walkouts, the United Auto Workers union used a strategy that has almost become a relic for organized labor, the strike.

Before the UAW's two-day strike last month at General Motors Corp. and its roughly six hour walkout Wednesday at Chrysler LLC, the union hadn't launched a nationwide strike against a major automaker in 31 years.

There are fewer than two dozen major walkouts each year, down from 400 or more annually in the 1950s, which raises the question of whether the UAW's quick settlements with the two automakers on the heels of strikes will pump new life into an old tactic or whether U.S. unions remain gun-shy about the tactic, which has often backfired?

Though the UAW had warned about a walkout if it could not reach a deal at Chrysler by Wednesday morning, its decision to send its members onto the streets was a surprise, partly because the union, in its unusually long bargaining with GM, had repeatedly pushed back its deadline.

But with no extension of its deadline with Chrysler, UAW workers starting walking out of most of carmaker's 32 U.S. plants and major parts facilities at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

A little more than six hours later, the strike was over and the union said it had reached a tentative contract.

The union provided no details of the contract, which has to be submitted to its 45,000 members for ratification.

The company said that the accord "balances the needs of our employees and company by providing a framework to improve our long-term manufacturing competitiveness."

That wording implies that, like GM's contract, the one between the UAW and Chrysler will include major changes such as giving new workers lower wages and benefits than those for current UAW members.

The UAW's contracts with Chrysler, GM and Ford Motor Co. expired Sept. 14, and the union still has to negotiate with Ford.

The brief Chrysler walkout left analysts scratching their heads.

"Why send everyone out if you're that close to an agreement? If you're that close, you can just make a phone call and tell everyone to hold on," said Global Insight analyst Aaron Bragman. "This is a mystery for us to figure out."

Adding to the mystery, Bragman said, was word that the two sides reached a deal within two hours after the strike began.

Some experts suggested that UAW officials might have stumbled into a showdown with Chrysler and kept going because they wanted to show the rank and file that they were hanging tough.

That would make sense, they said, if union officials realized they would have to present a contract with unpopular concessions to their members.

Going into contract talks with GM, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger had faced criticism from foes within the union that he was unlikely to stand up to the automakers.

It is also unclear whether the union's short-lived shows of strength will set a precedent.

Quick strikes barely provide a union with leverage against a company, say experts such as Craig Olson at the University of Illinois.

"I don't think you could argue that either side achieved anything sufficient from a two-day strike," Olson said. "The settlement had to be close."

Even longer strikes have failed, said Richard W. Hurd, a labor expert at Cornell University.

Like other experts, he pointed to a failed strike by mechanics at Northwest Airlines Inc. ,where, after 15 months on the picket lines, most of the mechanics lost their jobs; and a failed strike by truckers against Overnite Transportation, where, after three years, the trucking company defeated a Teamsters organizing drive.

Still, unions have come out winners in some strikes. But such victories have been few and far between, said Hurd and others.

The Teamsters won a good contract from UPS after a 16-day strike in 1997, and white collar workers at Boeing Co. won bonuses and pay increases after a 40-day strike in 2000. In these disputes, the unions relied on timing and rank-and-file solidarity for leverage.

More recently unions in the health care and service industries have been increasingly willing to stage large-scale strikes. "Because they are growing, they are more willing to take risks," Hurd said.

Similarly, unions that represent factory and airline workers talk more nowadays about taking on their companies, he said. But these unions are compelled more by despair than a newborn zeal, he said. "It's more of a sign of the difficulties that unions are facing as companies go after them for concessions," Hurd said.

Stephen Franklin and Rick Popely write for the Chicago Tribune.

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