Big 3 need relief from labor pacts to ride out crisis

This is not the time to panic. But it is time for a realistic assessment of the industry's outlook: If suppliers, automakers, auto workers and dealers work together, the industry ought to avoid a catastrophe.

All signs point to a serious slowdown. It probably won't last as long as the alarmists predict, but history teaches that in a national crisis, Americans stop buying cars for a while.

Last week's announcement that the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird finally are being put to rest was long overdue. And it wasn't a surprise that the plant in Ste. Therese, Quebec, will be closed. But that was just the beginning.

The industry came into this crisis with more capacity than it needs. Now, there is an even bigger glut.

What to do? There may be a few cases, such as Ste. Therese, in which a plant must be closed. But the goal of automakers must be to keep plants open. They may need innovative cooperation from labor leaders to do it.

The Big 3 are only halfway through their respective four-year agreements with labor. The contracts, negotiated in fat times, make it difficult to shed workers and almost impossible to close plants.

It is time to revisit those agreements. CAW President Buzz Hargrove and UAW President Steve Yokich must demonstrate the kind of leadership and statesmanship that can put them in the company of labor giants Walter Reuther, who taught the industry to reason together, and Doug Fraser, who accepted sacrifices to save Chrysler Corp. 20 years ago.

The Big 3 must not use the crisis as an excuse to eliminate jobs willy-nilly; that ought to be subject to good-faith collective bargaining.

Without labor on board, the automakers will just be re-arranging the deck chairs.

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