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UAW members approve contract with Chrysler despite significant dissent

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Despite significant dissent among some of its workers, United Auto Workers members narrowly passed a four-year contract agreement with Chrysler LLC on Saturday, leaving Ford Motor Co. as the last automaker to negotiate with in this year's round of contract talks.

Talks with Ford were proceeding Saturday, although union leadership wasn't expected to attend and no agreement was expected during the weekend, a person briefed on the talks said. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

The union said 56 per cent of production workers and 51 per cent of skilled-trades workers voted for the Chrysler pact. The percentages voting in favour were much higher among clerical workers and engineers represented by the union.

The contract covers about 45,000 active workers at Chrysler and more than 55,000 Chrysler retirees and 23,000 surviving spouses. It will expire Sept. 14, 2011.

``Our members had to face some tough choices, and we had a solid, democratic debate about this contract,'' UAW president Ron Gettelfinger said in a statement. ``Now we're going to come together as a union _ and now it's on the company to move ahead, increase their market share and continue to build great cars and trucks here in the U.S.''

Chrysler, which became a private company in August when it was bought by Cerberus Capital Management LLC, said the agreement will make the company more competitive.

``We are pleased that our UAW employees recognize that the new agreement meets the needs of the company and its employees by providing a framework to improve our long-term manufacturing competitiveness,'' Tom LaSorda, Chrysler's vice-chairman and president, said in a statement.

The union and Chrysler reached agreement Oct. 10 following a six-hour countrywide strike. Like the agreement ratified earlier by General Motors Corp. workers, the Chrysler contract establishes a union-run trust to cover retirees' health care and allows the company to pay lower wages to about 11,000 noncore, non-assembly workers.

At GM, 66 per cent of workers ratified the deal. But at Chrysler, many workers were angered by the contract, saying it failed to make as many guarantees for future work as GM's contract. Some workers also were upset about the two-tier wage structure.

As recently as Tuesday the pact appeared headed for defeat after large locals in Kokomo, Ind., voted it down. But workers at four Michigan assembly and stamping plants in Sterling Heights and Warren had a strong turnout Wednesday and voted largely in favour. The Sterling Heights and Warren votes pushed the favourable vote ahead.

At the last plant to vote, in Belvidere, Ill., 55 per cent of workers opposed the contract early Saturday, according to a person who was briefed on the vote. The person requested anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to speak on vote totals.

Gary Chaison, a labour specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said the union turned things around with heavy lobbying.

``They put forth the view, very effectively, that this was the best they could do at the time,'' Chaison said. ``It's not that this was a strong agreement, but that if we reject the agreement, we're going into a world of uncertainty.''

Chaison said many workers voted for the contract even though they were unhappy with it because they felt it wasn't a good time for a fight. In addition to going private in August, Chrysler has recently overhauled management and is reviewing its products.

Gwen Vanover, who works on the assembly line in Belvidere, said Friday that she knew she could survive a lengthy strike but she wasn't so sure about Chrysler, so she switched her vote to ``yes.''

``I don't think it's the best contract,'' said Vanover, 52, of Belvidere. ``I don't even really mind being out of work if I thought we could get something better. But in order for something to be there for the next generation, it's better to lose the battle than to lose the war.''

Aaron Bragman, an auto industry analyst with Global Insight, said he doesn't think the contentious nature of the Chrysler ratification will carry over to Ford. Ford workers have already agreed to competitive operating agreements to cut costs and they recognize the company is in dire financial straits, he said. Dearborn-based Ford lost more than $12 billion last year and has mortgaged its assets to fund its turnaround plan.

``Ford plants are already in the mind-frame that the company needs help and we're going to be able to provide it,'' Bragman said.

Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans would not comment on the negotiations.

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UAW members approve contract with Chrysler despite significant dissent
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