Despite changes, some things the same for UAW

DETROIT — As better times return, the United Automobile Workers is not the union it was before Detroit's carmakers hemorrhaged billions of dollars.

The union is now a part owner of General Motors and Chrysler through a union trust fund, and its members are barred from striking against the two companies over compensation for the next five years. All told, hourly workers gave up pay and benefits worth $7,000 to $30,000 each a year during the downturn, the union estimates.

But while those changes might blur the traditional battle lines between management and union, the incoming president of the UAW, Bob King, is making it clear some things are not about to change.

As one automaker, Ford Motor Co., restores some perks for salaried workers, King is putting the companies on notice that he expects hourly workers to be given back some of the benefits they surrendered as the bottom lines of all three car companies improves — at least to the extent that management and other stakeholders get rewarded.

The union is expected to ask that some of its givebacks be reversed during contract talks with the carmakers in 2011, when the contract signed in 2007 — and modified last year with more concessions as General Motors and Chrysler approached bankruptcy — expires.


''When there's equality of sacrifice, there's got to be equality of gain," King said during a speech to executives and analysts this week. "We just want to make sure when things turn around we share in the upside."

King's muscle flexing is bound to be popular with his rank and file, but it comes at a sensitive time. Some of the carmakers are just getting their footing back, and during much of the crisis, critics have portrayed his union as a major hindrance to Detroit's ability to compete with foreign rivals. There is also the difficult task of navigating volatile public sentiments about the $62 billion in taxpayer money given to GM and Chrysler.

''The bankruptcies were structured to protect the union interests at the expense of the creditors and investors," said Paul Kersey, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative research group in Midland, Mich. "So I don't see there being a whole lot of public support for them pursuing a restoration of the concessions."

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