May 7, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Daniel Howes

Commentary: UAW, General Motors headed for a showdown

This is about to turn real ugly.

The bankruptcy of Chrysler LLC -- promised to be "speedy" -- is shaping up to be anything but. The umpteenth restructuring of General Motors Corp. is giving new meaning to the word "draconian," mostly because the time for negotiation and cajoling is being replaced with the hammer -- take the deal or we'll see you in court.

Which is why a United Auto Workers vice president used an upbeat event at a rival plant Wednesday to send a clear message to the General, one day before last-ditch bargaining is scheduled to go into high gear: Avoiding bankruptcy may be preferable, but not if it means complicity in using taxpayer dollars to benefit foreign autoworkers and gut the union.

"There are some today that don't understand what the Ford leadership understands," UAW Vice President Bob King, head of the union's Ford Department, told an audience that included Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr., CEO Alan Mulally and Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "There are some companies who want to sell products here that they're not going to build here.

"There are some restructuring plans that are saying they want to take the jobs out of America. And they want to build ... in Mexico rather than build in the United States of America." Then, his voice rising in expectation of a unanimous response from gathered members of UAW Local 900, King asked:

"If you're going to take American tax dollars -- our tax dollars -- where do you build?"

In these times, especially, the politically correct question answers itself: "America." This in front of the building-Ford-Fusions-in-Mexico execs, now that King clearly has established the Blue Oval as the standard by which the rest of Detroit Auto would be judged.

Yes, this is about to get real ugly, an archly political confrontation of organized labor and the depressing reality of GM's business prospects that will, before it's over, force the likes of Granholm, members of Michigan's congressional delegation and lots more to choose sides.

The problem here is that King, a likely favorite to succeed UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, implies the antiquated belief that all three of Detroit's automakers are equal, as if "pattern bargaining" and an alleged market parity between GM, Ford and Chrysler exist in the real world.

They don't, haven't for a long time and few know that better than the UAW's leadership. If parity existed, Chrysler wouldn't be bankrupt, GM wouldn't be on the way out and Ford wouldn't be sitting on the cash pile (and an intensely focused business plan) that is keeping it from joining the other two.

"The General Motors plan is not acceptable to the American public," King continued, assuming that who builds what where is as important in Los Angeles or Atlanta as it is in Detroit. "I don't think the American public will support their tax dollars being used to close more plants -- and then to openly say we're going to bring product in from China, Korea and Mexico."

Building cars in foreign markets to sell in foreign markets is acceptable, he said, conveniently downplaying the Mexican parentage of the Fusion and its siblings from Lincoln and Mercury. Or the fact that its GM counterpart, the Chevy Malibu, issues from UAW plants.

What we're witnessing here isn't so much a paroxysm of nationalistic fervor, because driving that line in the North American auto business means little if the automakers end up in liquidation. No, these are the opening salvoes in a political battle to win hearts and minds of competing constituencies.

First, to show union members that their leaders are fighting the good fight against punishing odds, a horrific economy, a skeptical Congress and a critical public. And, second, to show GM insiders that the union knows it has five days, starting today, to influence the "manufacturing footprint" (i.e., plant closing) plan scheduled to be presented to GM's North American Strategy Board on May 12.

Not much time. For years, UAW-Big Three negotiations have been the three equal parts of economics, politics and theater. Now, there's a fourth component -- survival. It's fueled by theater and shaped by politics, but it will be decided by the numbers, one way or another.

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. (313) 222-2106 dchowes@detnews.com">dchowes@detnews.com Bryce G. Hoffman contributed.

More Daniel Howes