Saying that its workers responded to every challenge GM presented, from the corporate restructuring, GM's attrition plan, the Delphi bankruptcy, and the 2005 health care agreement, UAW president Ron Gettelfinger commented, "We're shocked and disappointed that General Motors has failed to recognize and appreciate what our membership has contributed during the past four years."
Workers were striking for job security, economic issues, benefits for active workers, and to win investment in future products, said Gettelfinger.
The union gave GM a nine-day contract extension to avoid a strike, he continued. That is the longest extension in the history of the UAW, he pointed out.
The strike has nothing to do with the Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA) for retirees, Gettelfinger pointed out. VEBA is a permissible but not mandatory subject of bargaining.
In a speech before the Detroit Economic Club earlier in the month, Gettelfinger had quoted one of the UAW's early presidents, Walter Philip Reuther, on rising health care costs. Comparing the issues Reuther was addressing in 1968 to present concerns, Gettelfinger noted progress has been slow. In 2007, he said, the US health care bill is expected to reach $2.2 trillion, the highest in the world. Yet, he said, 47 million American have no health care and millions more are under-insured. On infant mortality, the US ranks 27th in the world. Regarding life expectancy for women, the US ranks 30th in the world. And on life expectancy for men, it is 27th.
"Our union has, since it was proposed by President Truman, supported a single payer, universal, comprehensive national health care program that covers every person because we believe health care should be a right and not a privilege for those who can afford it," Gettelfinger noted in the speech. "Obviously, not everyone agrees with this approach, but surely we can agree that while we have the best health care professionals anywhere in the world, our current system of health care delivery is too costly and inefficient," he continued.
Given those earlier statements and Gettelfinger's comments in announcing the work stoppage, it appears to be clear benefits are a distinctly drawn "line in the sand" for the UAW in these negotiations.
The tentative agreement between UAW workers and GM attempted to address concerns over healthcare by establishing a healthcare trust that would be administered by the union. The UAW had also been able to elicit certain guarantees on job security from GM. The tentative agreement must now be ratified by union members.