DETROIT -- Within 36 hours of the UAW strike against General Motors, the Detroit automaker announced a decision to shift worker health care payments to the union immediately -- a strategy that risks dragging out the strike, labor negotiators say.
"They're pouring gasoline on the fire," said Harry Katz, the Jack Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining at the School of Industrial & Labor Relations at Cornell University.
"This induces the workers to get more angry. GM thinks this will scare them or get them to rethink the cost of their benefits. I think it's going to backfire. It's quick, rash and insensitive."
In response to criticism, GM spokesman Pat Morrissey referred to the company's statement released Tuesday: "We understand strikes are difficult and disruptive to families. While on strike, some benefits shift to being funded by the union's strike fund, and in this case hourly employees are eligible for union-paid COBRA so their health care benefits can continue."
Katz, though, compared the tone of the move to how GM abruptly announced planned factory shutdowns in November prior to contract negotiations, alienating workers in a way that made global news.
"It just doesn't suggest a well-thought strategy," Katz said. "It's an unfortunate move by General Motors. They're providing very good healthcare benefits. They've should've just sucked it up."
The UAW said its lawyers are reviewing the move, which forces the union to more quickly tap its strike fund, which exceeds $750 million. Worker coverage would be picked up by COBRA, but the logistics are frightening to families of the 46,000 hourly workers during this time of uncertainty.
"This was done as a scare tactic," said a UAW source close to the negotiations. "It was unnecessary."
Legal experts nationally question the wisdom of the decision.