* No agreement on major contract issues
* CAW deadline for strike next Monday night
* Marchionne: long road ahead to conclusion of talks
* CAW president: companies rejected key concessions
* Workers at GM Oshawa plant prepare for strike
By Allison Martell and Bernie Woodall
OSHAWA, Ontario/DETROIT, Sept 14 Just three days
before a strike deadline, the Canadian Auto Workers and the
three Detroit automakers were far apart on major contract
issues, with Chrysler Group's chief executive telling workers to
temper their expectations and plant organizers preparing for a
Talks between the union and Fiat SpA's Chrysler Group LLC
, General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co
continued around the clock as time ticked down to the union's
strike deadline of 11:59 p.m. EDT on Monday (0359 GMT, Tuesday).
CAW National President Ken Lewenza said the companies had
rejected the union's proposed concessions on wages for new
hires, insisting on permanently lower wages for new employees,
something Lewenza called a "no-go."
"We can be flexible on wage progression," said Lewenza in an
interview with Reuters. "But it can't be a long-term, permanent
two-tier system, and they reject that outright."
The CAW had proposed cutting starting wages below the
roughly C$24 ($25) an hour currently offered and extending the
"earn-in," the time it takes new employees to reach the top of
the pay scale.
The Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers in the
United States have used a two-tier wage scale for the past
several years to bring labor costs closer to those of foreign
automakers. But the CAW is adamant that unlike UAW members, its
new workers eventually reach the same pay as existing employees.
The CAW, which represents some 20,000 workers at the Detroit
Three, has threatened an unprecedented simultaneous strike at
all three automakers if it fails to reach a contract agreement
with at least one of them before the deadline.
Lewenza said he is frustrated but still "hopeful" that he
will have a deal by the deadline.
Chrysler declined to comment on Lewenza's comments, and Ford
and GM could not immediately be reached on Friday evening.
Earlier on Friday, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne warned
union negotiators that they couldn't keep ignoring the "facts"
since that was not going to "make anybody's life better."
Marchionne did not provide details, but in the past he has
said that manufacturing costs in Canada, which he calls the
highest in the world, must be addressed in the current contract
"My sincere hope is that we all come to the stark
realization of where we are and then we move it on from here,"
he told reporters at a United Way of Southeastern Michigan news
conference. Marchionne is the chairman of that charity group.
He added that some progress has been made in the talks but
said there is a "long road to travel between now and
Lewenza said the union proposed temporarily freezing
workers' cost of living allowance, an annual wage increase, in
exchange for a lump-sum payment. But he said the companies want
to eliminate the cost of living allowance altogether.
He also said he is willing to be flexible on pensions for
new employees. Asked whether he would consider anything other
than a defined benefit pension plan, he said: "I think we have a
responsibility to be flexible."
Defined benefit plans are typically paid for by companies
and are becoming rarer as employers struggle to fund yawning
pension shortfalls and look to switch employees to self-funded
defined contribution plans.
But when it comes to making compromises, said Dino Chiodo,
chair of the CAW's Chrysler master bargaining committee, the
union is looking for something in return.
"We are asking obviously for investment, job security and
product allocation for that," he said.
Negotiators are pushing for investments in GM's Oshawa
operations and Ford's Windsor engine plant, as well as a new
paint shop at Chrysler's Brampton, Ontario, facility, the Globe
and Mail newspaper reported, citing an unnamed senior union
CAW PREPARES TO STRIKE
On Friday afternoon, GM assembly line worker Peter Johnston
was at the CAW's Oshawa offices, preparing for a strike. The
local has thousands of picket signs stockpiled, and portable
washrooms on order for use at GM's Oshawa assembly plant.
Johnston, a 32-year veteran, works on the consolidated line
at the Oshawa plant. GM has said it will shut down the line next
summer, putting as many as 2,000 workers, nearly a quarter of
GM's unionized Canadian employees, out of work.
"I'm like everybody else, the uncertainty rides on me. I
fear for the future of the workers at General Motors, and the
municipality around here," he said.