UAW Chief Says Unions Have To Adjust To Changing Market

Union members also say national elections will be key.

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Amid veiled warnings of further concessions to General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., many United Auto Workers members at the union's 34th convention say national elections will have a far greater effect on them than anything they lose at the bargaining table.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger told about 1,300 delegates in Las Vegas on Monday that it's time for a different relationship with the domestic automakers because they are facing difficult times.

''Like it or not, these challenges aren't the kind that can be ridden out,'' he said. ''They demand new and farsighted solutions _ and we must be an integral part of developing these solutions.''

But he also railed against the Bush administration for what he called failed trade policies and anti-union stances that have hurt the UAW and the American auto industry.

John Clark, president of a local at a small Delphi Corp. plant in Adrian, Mich., that's slated for closure or sale, said the union needs to do a better job of campaigning for candidates who aren't anti-union.

''It really comes down to the ballot box. That's where we've got to take it,'' Clark said. ''You can't bargain trade.''

Gettelfinger said President Bush's trade policies, including support of a free-trade proposal with Thailand, give countries that allow child labor, 12-hour workdays and jailing of union organizers an unfair advantage over the United States.

But Ann Marie Hauser, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, blamed the auto industry's woes on Democratic Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

''No amount of finger pointing by Democrat front groups will create a single job or distract voters from the fact that Governor Granholm's economic policies have failed Michigan,'' she said. ''While more than 5.3 million jobs have been created nationwide since September 2003, Michigan continues to move backward and lose jobs as Democrats play attack politics.''

Gettelfinger said the UAW's deal last year to make health care concessions to GM and Ford was the most painful decision he has made as president. But he told members that the agreement was necessary to address the companies' huge retiree health care liabilities and to preserve future benefits.

Under the agreements, retired autoworkers will pay monthly contributions, annual deductibles and co-payments for the first time. Hourly workers won't be required to pay deductibles or monthly contributions, but they will have to contribute some of their future wage increases to a trust for health care expenses.

In an hour-long speech, Gettelfinger said lack of action on a single-payer national health care plan by the Bush administration has hurt the domestic auto industry.

Ford has said it spent about $3.5 billion to cover 550,000 hourly and salaried workers, retirees and dependents last year; GM spent $5.4 billion in 2005 for its 1.1 million employees, retirees and dependents.

Charles James, a worker at a Ford plant in Atlanta slated to close in 2008, said it may be time to work more with the automakers.

''Nobody likes to give back anything, but there comes a time when it just makes good business sense,'' Jones said. ''If we didn't do it then, it was going to be much worse later on. It's better to have something than nothing at all.''

Gettelfinger, who likely will be elected to a second term Wednesday, has come under fire from some workers who say he hasn't done enough to keep plants open that GM and Ford have slated to close.

There likely will be resolutions offered Tuesday to harden the union's stance against plant closures, including one to ban overtime at plants that take on work from closed factories.

Gettelfinger said that while the UAW would continue to defend workers at plants targeted for closure, many workers will be able to retire or get buyout packages that will help them move to new jobs.

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