DETROIT (Reuters)- The head of the United Auto Workers union said on Thursday its leaders were "not confident" that General Motors needs concessions from its hourly work force to return to profitability.
Setting the stage for a possible confrontation, the union's leadership also warned that it would be "a huge mistake" for GM to take any unilateral actions affecting the health-care benefits of the UAW workers who build its cars and trucks.
"We need to know exactly what the financial condition of the organization is," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger told WWJ news radio in Detroit.
"If you look right now, the stockholders' equity is up, they're paying dividends, they've got a huge cash reserve, so we're not confident at this juncture that we need to do anything," he said.
Gettelfinger's remarks, suggesting that the UAW might withdraw previous offers to work together with GM to cut its massive health-care costs, came a day after he told the New York Times the automaker had failed to convince him about the severity of its financial situation.
In a statement issued after his comments to the Detroit radio station, however, Gettelfinger and Richard Shoemaker, the UAW vice president in charge of GM negotiations, said they were still prepared to work with the company to find "mutually agreeable ways to reduce costs in health care and other areas."
GM, which posted a $1.1 billion first-quarter loss and saw its debt rating cut to high-yield or "junk" status last month, has said it urgently needs to slash spending on health care, expected to total nearly $6 billion this year.
The company has been in talks for weeks with the UAW about rolling back the health-care benefits of union workers. But while sources familiar with the situation say GM wants a deal by June 30, local UAW officials say that deadline is unachievable.
'DO THE RIGHT THING'
"We recognize this process may not be moving as quickly as some people might like. But we firmly believe that it is far more important to do things the right way than to rush to meet unrealistic expectations," the statement by Gettelfinger and Shoemaker said.
The union leaders reiterated that they won't reopen the UAW's current labor contract with GM. Doing so would allow for more sweeping changes in health care and other benefits beyond those permitted under the confines of the current labor agreement, which isn't due to expire until September 2007.
GM is the nation's leading private provider of health care, covering 1.1 million workers, retirees and family members.
Company Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner suggested he was prepared to cut health-care costs, with or without the UAW's approval, in a speech at GM's annual meeting last week.
But Wall Street analysts say unilateral action by GM is highly unlikely since it would almost certainly result in a strike at a time when GM is preparing to launch important new additions to its vehicle lineup.
The year 1998 was the last time the UAW launched a major work stoppage against GM.
"We ... firmly believe that it is in the best interests of all GM stakeholders for the UAW and GM to work together on these issues and to maintain the solid working relationship that we have worked so hard to build since 1998," Gettelfinger and Shoemaker said in their statement.
A GM spokesman declined to comment, saying the company had nothing to add about its position on health care and its discussions with the UAW beyond what Wagoner said in his speech last week.