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2 of 4 key locals voting Wednesday approve Chrysler UAW contract

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Chrysler workers at two of four key United Auto Workers union locals voting Wednesday approved a new contract with the company, the presidents of the locals said.

Local 140 President Melvin Thompson said 78 per cent of those voting approved the tentative agreement and 22 per cent opposed it. Thompson said 1,961 of his 2,600 members voted on the agreement. Local 140 represents workers at Chrysler's Warren Truck Assembly plant.

In nearby Sterling Heights, production workers at Local 1264 approved the tentative agreement by an 82 per cent margin, local president Bob Stuglin said. Stuglin wouldn't say how many workers voted, but he said turnout was the largest the local had ever had for a contract vote. The local represents about 2,000 people at Chrysler's Sterling Stamping Plant.

The votes were good news for UAW president Ron Gettelfinger, who has faced serious challenges from some members opposed to the deal. The tentative agreement must be ratified by a majority of members to go into effect.

Stuglin said the UAW's chief Chrysler negotiator, General Holiefield, and other union leaders visited his plant Tuesday to try to sell the deal. Autoworker Angela Parker said she was persuaded to vote for the deal after Holiefield paid a similar visit to Local 140.

Parker, who has worked at Chrysler for 14 years, said she was planning to vote against the contract but decided to vote in favour after learning that workers hired at a lower wage would have the opportunity to move into higher-paying jobs.

``That was my main concern, that they weren't going to be stuck making $16 an hour on the line doing the same jobs that we are doing,'' said Parker, 40.

The fate of the agreement could be decided by the four locals scheduled to vote Wednesday. They locals, at assembly and stamping plants in Sterling Heights and Warren, represent more than 8,600 workers, or roughly 19 per cent of the 45,000 workers who would be covered by the historic four-year agreement.

They were voting a day after two locals in Kokomo, Ind., overwhelmingly rejected the deal, reached Oct. 10 after a six-hour strike.

Voting until Tuesday had been close, according to a running tally kept by the union, with ``yes'' votes slightly ahead.

But on Tuesday, 72 per cent of about 3,000 voters at Kokomo's Local 685 and 78 per cent of 737 members in Local 1166 voted against the contract, a huge defeat for Gettelfinger. Local 685 has about 5,000 members.

Eight local unions representing more than 16,000 workers have now turned down the landmark pact, while seven locals representing about 11,700 workers have approved it. It's nearly impossible to keep a running total because most local union officials give out only percentages and not the number of people who voted. Also, officials of some smaller locals could not be reached or would not give out results.

Gary Chaison, a labour specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said the discontent with the contract is a sign of a union in disarray.

``Each local is looking out for themselves now,'' Chaison said. ``The larger locals, the big assembly locals, see the most to lose in terms of job cuts. They feel they can oppose the national officers.''

The vote Wednesday was going right to the epicentre of the union dissent, the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, where 2,500 workers make the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger midsize cars.

Local 1700 at the plant is led by Bill Parker, who also served as chairman of the union's national negotiating committee in the Chrysler talks. Parker is against the contract, mainly because he is dissatisfied with a lower-tier wage scale for many new hires of around $14 per hour and new vehicle guarantees for factories that mainly run for the life of the contract but are less than what General Motors Corp. guaranteed workers in its contract. Chrysler assembly workers now make about $28.75 per hour, according to the company.

``Two tiers of workers create divisions within the union, pressure to reduce the top tier in the direction of the second tier, and efforts to drive the second tier even lower,'' Parker wrote in a minority report on the agreement.

Without specific product guarantees, local unions will face demands for concessions on a plant-by-plant basis in order to get new vehicles, Parker wrote.

A few miles south of Parker's plant, Thompson, the head of Local 140, said he is in favour of the pact and told that to his members.

Thompson said Parker's position on the new vehicle guarantees doesn't make sense because no promises are guaranteed beyond the life of the four-year contract.

He also disagrees that the two-tier wage scale is wrong, saying that no current worker will see their pay or jobs cut.

``The two-tier is what creates opportunity for Chrysler and new hires,'' Thompson said. ``Chrysler gets to reduce costs and be more competitive, which we have to do.''

The agreement also contains a company-funded, union-run trust that will take over retiree health care payments in 2010.

UAW workers haven't rejected a national contract since Chrysler employees did in 1982.

If the deal is rejected, Chaison said it's likely both sides will return to the bargaining table, and Chrysler and its new owners, private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, likely will throw in some product guarantees to get the deal passed at a few more large plants.

``The membership wants to feel as if they've gotten a victory out of this. If they reject the contract, they want to feel they got something for it,'' said Chaison, who predicted a close final vote.

Depending on the outcome in Warren and Sterling Heights, the fate of the contract could come down to Local 1268 at a small-car assembly plant in Belvidere, Ill. The local, with about 3,400 members, is scheduled to vote Friday and Saturday.

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2 of 4 key locals voting Wednesday approve Chrysler UAW contract
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