Seeking aid, automakers have an ally in the UAW

By Bill Vlasic and Nick Bunkley

New York Times News Service

DETROIT — When Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Automobile Workers union, appears this week at congressional hearings to help make the case for the Detroit automakers getting emergency federal aid, he wants lawmakers to know what he believes is at stake.

"It wouldn’t be just one company failing here," Gettelfinger said in an interview. "It would be all three going down."

He might as well add the UAW.


The union’s membership at General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler has been nearly halved to 139,000 workers in the last three years, and it continues to shrink with every new plant closing.

When he and the leaders of Detroit’s Big Three speak at their scheduled hearing, Gettelfinger is likely to deliver the bleakest warning. A bankruptcy by any of the three companies in Detroit, Gettelfinger fears, would wipe out the rest of them.

"It’s not just GM going bankrupt," he said. "It’s all the rest of the industry that goes with it. Two of the three companies would go under, and there’s a high probability all three would go."

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Gettelfinger would be a passionate advocate for saving union jobs and funneling $25 billion in federal loans to the beleaguered automakers.

But Gettelfinger was briefed on GM’s dismal financial condition before its earnings were announced on Nov. 7, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

He saw firsthand that GM, as well as Chrysler, cannot last long at the rate they are losing sales and revenue in a market that is down 14.6 percent from 2007.

"The future of the UAW will be determined over the next two weeks," said Gary N. Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University. Gettelfinger expects the union to be labeled part of Detroit’s problems, and to defend its $27-an-hour wages and top-of-the-line health care benefits and pensions.

But he won’t back down on his prediction of what failure of the Detroit auto industry will mean to the rest of America.


"For every 2,500 cars that the Big Three sells in this country, they employ 78 American workers," he said. "There is a reason here for us to keep this industry in this country."

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