Chrysler-UAW talks: much ado about nothing

David Barkholz covers labor issues for Automotive News.

What’s taking so long?

The Chrysler Group and UAW contract talks are dragging to the wire.

While there will be some faux drama before the deal is done -- envision Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne on an airplane back to Detroit from Frankfurt today -- it’s all about theatrics.

A Chrysler source vowed before the talks officially began in July that Chrysler would hold the line in these negotiations on an average $49 an hour in wages and benefits paid to the carmaker’s 23,000 auto workers today.

The UAW can’t make Chrysler budge. Or General Motors, for that matter. The UAW has a no-strike clause at Chrysler and GM, so that weapon is out. Binding arbitration is also a loser because hourly compensation is already higher than that at the transplants, to which an arbitration ruling would be pegged.

So what’s happening in those formerly cigar-smoke-filled bargaining rooms is the UAW moving deck chairs around.

Chrysler will yield to a higher signing bonus and, maybe, performance bonuses. But in exchange, the company will give no raises and will demand that workers pay a higher portion of their health care tab. Ultimately, there’s no net increase in labor costs at Chrysler. Probably the same at GM.

This ongoing theater is readily apparent to the rank-and-file. One Chrysler UAW official frankly told me that his workers will get screwed in these talks. But wait in four years when the no-strike clause expires and the gloves come off.

“It’ll be payback time,” the source said.

The 112,000 UAW-represented workers have not had a wage increase since 2003, and their cost-of-living allowances are frozen, probably unlikely to be restored in these talks.

All said, the labor bottom lines at Chrysler and GM won’t change, just some minor modifications in how it’s distributed. So ration the medicine, for Pete’s sake, and let the rank-and-file swallow it.

The story at Ford Motor Co. is more complicated. The rank-and-file there can strike. That’s why their negotiations come last.

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