DETROIT -- If the head of General Motors is betting his survival in the corner office on getting the United Auto Workers union to accept quick and deep cuts in health-care benefits, he should probably start looking for another job, industry and labor analysts say.
GM officials said last Wednesday -- a week after the company issued its biggest profit warning in more than a decade -- that they want to level the playing field by getting UAW hourly workers to accept the same reduced health-care benefits already provided to GM's salaried or white-collar workers.
But there are no guarantees GM will be able to convince the traditionally militant UAW to sign off on such a deal, which the company says it needs to shore up its finances and compete with fast-growing foreign rivals such as Toyota Motor Corp.
The world's largest automaker, which is losing market share and struggling to return its automotive operations to profits, make have to look for cuts elsewhere.
The UAW recently raised hopes it was prepared to sacrifice at least some of its generous health-care benefits by agreeing to have hourly workers who use preferred-provider plans at the Chrysler arm of DaimlerChrysler pay the first deductibles charged to Big 3 workers.
That deal is expected to be matched at Ford Motor Co. and GM at some point. But GM, the biggest private U.S. provider of health-care benefits, is looking for savings significantly beyond those now in place at Chrysler.
'A TOUGH SELL'
"It's going to be a tough sell," Harley Shaiken, a professor specializing in labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley, said when asked about the likelihood of getting the union to make an unprecedented concession on benefits for hourly GM employees.
Shaiken and other analysts told Reuters that getting the UAW on board with its plan would also mean getting it to reopen a labor contract that is not due to expire until 2007.
There are few precedents for that in the U.S. auto industry's turbulent history. And a so-called "reopener" would mean putting a revised contract up to ratification by GM's entire UAW work force, a move some say could open the door to a strike.
"This isn't something that one or two quarterly profit statements are going to have the political weight to bring across," Shaiken said. "This is not going to be something that just happens either at a moment's notice or without any opposition."
Working in GM's favor, according to many analysts, is the fact that UAW President Ron Gettelfinger is seen as a pragmatist who understands the realities of a cutthroat industry and the need for U.S. automakers to stay competitive to preserve UAW jobs.
'CHRYSLER WAS DYING'
But the situation at GM is less dramatic than it was when the UAW made a series of concessions to pull Chrysler back from the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1980s, and that works against GM.
"Those were circumstances in which Chrysler was actually dying," said Gerry Meyers, a business professor at the University of Michigan and former head of American Motors. "GM is a long way from dying," he added. "They've got $23 billion of cash ... Chrysler had no cash."
Another negative for GM -- which spends more on doctors and medicine than it does on steel -- is that Gettelfinger ruled out any sweeping concessions on medical benefits for the UAW rank-and-file in collective bargaining talks two years ago.
Gettelfinger also knows that Ford and Chrysler would insist on matching any deal the UAW strikes with GM, since they demand parity in their labor contracts.
"Yielding this concession to GM right now, even with a vote, would result in Ford and Chrysler asking for the same thing -- much to the anger of the active and retired rank-and-file," said Sean McAlinden, a senior economist with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
There could still be surprises. But any fix of GM's health-care mess is likely to come well after next month, when GM and UAW leaders will meet to talk about medical costs and other issues affecting the company, industry analysts said.
Most agree that GM CEO Rick Wagoner could soon face an irreparable loss of confidence in his leadership if he is unable to come up with any quick solutions on the labor costs that give GM some relief.
"Until recently I would have thought that he (Wagoner) would have been able to survive most anything because he's such an outstanding executive. However, the forces are militating against his continuation," Meyers said.