January 22, 2009 at 12:17 pm

UAW to Big 3: Talk with Obama

Gettelfinger suggests union would be willing to make concessions.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger speaks Wednesday at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit. (Gary Malerba / Special to The Detroit News)

DETROIT -- United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said Wednesday night the CEOs of Detroit's Big Three automakers should meet with President Barack Obama soon and that the union has kept in touch with Obama's team of economic advisers.

Gettelfinger said he wouldn't speculate on whether deadlines would be extended for the union and General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC to reach concessions required to get up to $17.4 billion in federal loans.

He also suggested the union would be willing to make sacrifices in the current round of talks.

"There's more things I think we can do," Gettelfinger told reporters Wednesday at the Automotive News World Congress at Detroit's Renaissance Center.

Gettelfinger hinted the UAW would fight the proposal that the union take stock instead of cash for part of the companies' contribution to a union-administered trust that will take over retiree health care costs next year.

"Just because we're union, doesn't mean we're stupid," said Gettelfinger, who repeatedly portrayed the federal loan to GM and Chrysler as vague.

"If someone tells you, 'you have to be more competitive,' what exactly does that mean?" he said, referring to language that the UAW must make its wages and benefits more competitive with nonunion auto workers at foreign plants in the U.S.

The union needs to come to an agreement with the automakers on cutting costs by Feb. 17, when GM and Chrysler must make a preliminary report to the U.S. Treasury Department on a restructuring plan.

Earlier this week, Gettelfinger said a clause in the loan agreements with the Treasury that would put the automakers' loans in default if the UAW went on strike didn't bother the union.

"It has no impact on anything," Gettelfinger said. "Our contracts are not a part of this agreement."

Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills, said the auto companies must make tough decisions.

"We ought to let the companies and the UAW and others work those out," Peters said this week. "The UAW understands what has to be done. The companies understand what has to be done."

GM has received $9.4 billion in loans from the U.S. Treasury; Chrysler has received $4 billion.

Gettelfinger also said he expects Ford Motor Co. to get whatever concessions the union agrees to with the other companies.

"It would seem to me like we would not want one of the companies to be disadvantaged over the others," he said.

You can reach Louis Aguilar at laguilar@detnews.com">laguilar@detnews.com