UAW leaders lobby hard to save Chrysler deal

The dispute over a controversial new labour contract at Chrysler has moved to the factory floors of Michigan, as union officials visited the assembly lines this week to try and persuade their members to vote 'Yes' to the agreement the union has hammered out with the Chrysler management. (See: Will Chrysler workers nix their UAW contract; and, what happens next?) Though the union says the contract is the best they can get, large numbers of workers think it is a bad deal, and too many people are afraid of okaying it. The workers fear that the union is giving up too much, without any commitment from Chrysler to keep their plants operating.

Chrysler and Ford are seeking some of the largest US labour concessions in decades. General Motors' workers approved a contract this month, with two-thirds of workers voting favourably. However, the Chrysler deal has faced opposition almost from the start. The ratification vote, which is on at Chrysler plants all over the US this week, is expected to end on Saturday, 27 October.

Like the GM deal, the Chrysler agreement includes an increase in health-care costs for workers and changes to union work rules that would create a class of plant workers paid just $14 or $15 an hour (Chrysler workers make about $28 per hour). The union says its contract protects workers' current salaries and seniority, but newly hired personnel could be put into the lower-paid categories.

Given the company's turbulent history - it almost went bankrupt in the late '70s, when the federal government bailed it out - and takeover battles with Kirk Kerkorian, who was eventually fended off, Chrysler workers are deeply fearful.

Private-equity group Cerberus Capital Management bought Chrysler earlier this year, after a rocky nine-year partnership with Germany's Daimler-Benz. The problem is, union workers do not trust Cerberus. They feel the owner is cash-rich, and does not need any concessions.

Voting on the Chrysler contract appears to be at the halfway point. The contract covers 45,000 workers at 59 facilities. Autoworkers in Sterling Heights and Warren, Michigan, which employ about 9,700 union members, who have been the targets of heavy lobbying, begin voting on Wednesday 24 October.