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GM Talks Go Around the Clock

July 26, 1998

FLINT, Mich. (AP) _ Round-the-clock negotiations to settle the devastating strikes against General Motors Corp. raised hopes Sunday that a settlement in the seven-week dispute was near.

After a week of minimal talks, negotiations shifted into high gear with the surprise announcement Saturday that the automaker had agreed to return disputed stamping dies back to the Flint Metal Center on Sunday.

The first of 12 truckloads of dies arrived just before noon Sunday at the Flint Metal Center.

The truckers plan to line up the flat bed tractor trailer rigs across from the plant and drive them in simultaneously at 2:30 p.m.

It was the removal of the dies _ heavy pieces of equipment from which doors, fenders and other vehicular body parts are stamped _ that spurred the United Auto Workers to strike the plant June 5. A second strike was called June 11 at a Flint plant that makes spark plugs, filters and other parts.

Expectations were high on the picket lines.

``If they’re getting the dies back, that means they’re going to settle one way or another,″ said tinsmith Bob Rowan as he walked along the stamping plant gate. ``It will be much nicer to go back to work. It ain’t much fun standing out here waving signs at the traffic.″

Negotiations continued overnight at both plants. GM spokesman Pete Ternes said there was some progress made at the stamping plant, but that it was coming slowly.

``They went all night with recesses at various times. A recess usually means that they’re reviewing proposals from one side the other,″ he said.

High-level talks also continued at a nearby hotel. Top UAW and GM leaders were there, including UAW President Stephen Yokich, Vice President Richard Shoemaker and GM personnel Vice President Gerald Knechtel.

``It’s clear that there has been progress made, and that, of course, puts you on the right track,″ Shoemaker said of the talks late Saturday.

Saturday’s announcement of the dies’ return coincided with the end of an independent arbitrator’s hearing to determine if the strikes violated the UAW-GM national contract, as the company alleges. The parties declined to comment on the four-day hearing, and arbitrator Thomas L. Roberts did not say when he would release his ruling.

In fact, there was speculation that a settlement could come before Roberts makes his decision known, which could render it moot.

GM had promised June 11 to return the dies to the plant, but only after the strikes were over. They had been moved to a stamping plant near Mansfield, Ohio, over Memorial Day weekend in anticipation of a strike. GM had hoped to use them to keep the launch of GM’s 1999 pickups on schedule.

But President Buzz Hargrove of the Canadian Auto Workers warned that his members at the Oshawa, Ontario, pickup plant would not use any parts made from the disputed dies as long as the UAW remained on strike. The plant ran out of parts and was closed last week.

The current pickup is GM’s top seller and highly profitable. Any significant delay in the scheduled fall launch could cost the company millions of dollars and thousands of customers. A settlement this week would likely keep the launch on target.

At a news conference Saturday, Knechtel was asked if he regretted moving the dies given what resulted.

``In this business, you don’t look back and have regrets,″ he said. ``You just look hopefully forward into the future.″

Knechtel, sounding more conciliatory, also acknowledged that GM has a lot of work ahead of it to heal the wounded relations with its union workers.

``I think that’s a very important challenge for the company and the union,″ Knechtel said. ``I certainly wouldn’t discount it in any way.″

Knechtel said GM was still pushing for a comprehensive settlement that also included resolution of disputes at two brake plants in Dayton, Ohio, a stamping plant in Indianapolis, and the Buick City complex in Flint.

Separate disputes at the Saturn car plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., the Chevrolet Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Ky., and at a truck plant in Janesville, Wis., were not on the table in Flint.

The strikes have idled about 192,900 GM employees in North America, in addition to the 9,200 strikers. It also has idled 27 of GM’s 29 major, wholly owned assembly plants and more than 100 parts plants.

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