Union Pitches In, But Bailout Hopes Dim

A United Auto Worker listens to UAW President Ron Gettelfinger speak at a news conference during a meeting of UAW officials in Detroit, Dec. 3, 2008. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the Democrats' plan to tap the Wall Street rescue fund to save U.S. automakers doesn't have the votes to pass.

One day after Detroit's Big Three sent survival plans to Capitol Hill in an urgent plea for $34 billion in government aid, Reid said there's still not enough support in Congress for using some of the $700 billion bailout to help the teetering carmakers.

He told The Associated Press in an interview, "I just don't think we have the votes to do that now."

The Bush administration and auto-state Republicans and Democrats are pushing instead to take a $25 billion program to help the carmakers produce green vehicles and convert that into emergency loans.

Earlier Wednesday, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger announced that the union is willing to change its contract to help save the Big Three, letting them delay billions of dollars in payments to a union-run health care trust.

Gettelfinger also said the union will modify the jobs bank, in which laid-off workers are paid up to 95 percent of their salaries while not working, but he did not give specifics.

Some 3,500 UAW members are currently receiving an average of $50,000 a year under that program, CBS News' Dean Reynolds reports, something the union acknowledges is difficult to explain.

"There's a perception problem, there is. I don't question that," Gettelfinger said.

Those kinds of perks - negotiated decades ago when the Big Three were facing almost no competition - today add almost $2,000 to the sticker price of every car Detroit produces when compared to their now very real competitors.

Take-home pay at U.S. automakers now averages $28 an hour - close to what Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai pay their workers, Reynolds reports. It's the Detroit-negotiated health and pension benefits that have changed the equation. Factor them in and labor costs are $73-dollars an hour for Detroit, but only $44 for non-Detroit producers.

"We're going to sit down and work out the mechanics," Gettelfinger said at a news conference after meeting with local union officials. "We're a little unclear on some of the issues."

One local union member who was in the meeting said the changes to the jobs bank would nearly eliminate it. The member asked not to be identified because the details had not been made public.

Gettelfinger stopped short of saying the union would reopen contract talks with General Motors Corp., Chrysler LLC and Ford Motor Co. but said it would be willing to return to the bargaining table to change some terms.

The UAW's efforts to help the Detroit Three get up to $34 billion in government loans come after GM and Chrysler said they are perilously low on cash and need government help before the end of the year.

A top General Motors executive repeated claims Wednesday that the auto giant may not make it to New Year's Day if Congress doesn't approve a federal bailout for the beleaguered industry.

"That's what we believe we need in order to run our business through the month of December," said GM's chief operating officer Fritz Henderson on CBS' The Early Show.

"We've seen … not only continued pressure in our business but the pace of deterioration has accelerated. October and November were just the worst levels we've seen post-World War II."

Henderson said Tuesday that "there isn't a Plan B," for General Motors if Congress doesn't act.

Jim Press, Chrysler's vice chairman, also said Wednesday the U.S. automakers were "down to months left," as industry officials ratcheted up a fierce lobbying push to persuade Congress to approve an emergency aid package.

"We're on the brink with the U.S. auto manufacturing industry," Press told The Associated Press in an interview. "If we have a catastrophic failure of one of these car companies, in this tender environment for the economy, it's a huge blow. It could trigger a depression."

Congressional leaders are reviewing three separate survival plans from General Motors, Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. as they weigh whether to call lawmakers back to Washington for a special session next week to vote on an auto bailout.

Henderson said GM acknowledges the need to "size our company much differently," if it hopes to stay viable in a hostile economic environment that has seen a precipitous drop in car sales.

"We developed a plan that would allow us to be robust and pay back the loans, even with a very difficult set of economic assumptions," said Henderson.

In blueprints delivered to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, both GM and Chrysler said they needed an immediate infusion of government cash to last through December, and both said they could drag the entire industry down if they fail. Ford is requesting a $9 billion "standby line of credit" that it says it doesn't expect to use unless one of the other Big Three goes belly up.

But Chrysler said it needed $7 billion by year's end just to keep running. And GM asked for an immediate $4 billion as the first installment of a $12 billion loan, plus a $6 billion line of credit it might need if economic conditions worsen. The two painted the direst portraits to date - including the prospects of shuttered factories and massive job losses - of what could happen if Congress doesn't quickly step in.

In their first round of pleas for a government rescue last month, the Big Three executives arrived in Washington on separate private jets and enraged lawmakers who said they failed to take responsibility for their companies' troubles or justify a federal bailout.

"I think we learned a lot from that experience," Ford CEO Alan Mulally said.

He, as well as GM CEO Rick Wagoner and Chrysler chief Bob Nardelli, are all road-tripping the 520 miles from Detroit to Washington in fuel-efficient hybrid cars for hearings on Thursday and Friday.

Mulally and Wagoner both said they'd work for $1 a year - something Chrysler's plan said Nardelli already does - if their firms took any government loan money. Ford offered to cancel management bonuses and salaried employees' merit raises next year, and GM said it would slash top executives' pay. Ford and GM both said they would sell their corporate aircraft.

All three plans envision the government getting a stake in the auto companies that would allow taxpayers to share in future gains if they recover.

Still, an auto bailout remains a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the mood in Congress "candidly is not supportive" of the automakers, although he called the consequences of just one of them failing "cataclysmic."

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said the automakers still need to prove they can survive and be profitable. "If these companies are asking for taxpayer dollars, they must convince Congress that they are going to shape up and change their ways," Dodd said in a statement.

His panel is to hear testimony Thursday from the auto executives, Gettelfinger, and the head of the Government Accountability Office on the companies' plans.

The House Financial Services Committee is to hold a similar session on Friday.