DETROIT, Sept 20 (Reuters) Negotiations between General Motors Corp and the United Auto Workers entered the sixth day of overtime on Thursday, with local union officials reporting slow progress.
Negotiations adjourned for the night on Wednesday and resume in Detroit on Thursday morning, a week after the UAW named GM as its strike target and shifted talks with the top U.S. automaker into high gear.
The UAW's contract with GM was extended on an hour-by-hour basis after previous labor pact expired at midnight on Friday.
''Progress is very slow,'' Al Benchich, president of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan, said in a message posted on the local unit's Web site on Wednesday evening.
One local union official told members that financial experts were brought in on Tuesday to assess financial data.
''Outside financial consultants were brought in (Tuesday) to look at all the numbers and funds,'' Enrique Flores Jr., president of UAW Local 276 in Grand Prairie, said in a message on the unit's Web site. ''The financial consultants will be going over the finances for a while.'' He added that negotiators were making some progress, but talks were moving ''real slow.'' The UAW had retained investment bank Lazard as an adviser while negotiating mid-contract concessions with GM in 2005, which saved the automaker billions of dollars by shifting some health-care costs to retirees.
For GM, key issues in high-stakes talks include cutting health-care costs and establishing a ''two-tier'' wage system that would allow the automaker to cut wage and pension costs as its aging work force retires, other people familiar with the talks have said.
To offset those concessions, the UAW has sought job security guarantees and a substantial signing bonus for the 73,000 GM workers it represents, according to these people, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the private talks.
The outcome of the contract talks is seen as crucial to efforts by the three Detroit-based automakers -- GM, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler LLC -- to recover from combined losses of $15 billion last year and sales difficulties that have driven their share of the U.S.
market below 50 percent.
Representatives from the UAW and GM have declined to comment on the content of the private talks.
In a development that could deliver deeper savings for GM, negotiators for the automaker have proposed the establishment of a health-care trust that would cover both active UAW-represented workers and some 540,000 retirees and spouses, the person familiar with the proposal told Reuters on Wednesday.
Previously, the talks had focused on the narrower issue of retiree health care, representatives of both sides in the talks have said.
Specifically, negotiations have hinged on how fully GM should be required to fund a special trust -- known as a voluntary employee beneficiary association, or VEBA -- in exchange for clearing an unfunded liability estimated at about $50 billion from its balance sheet.
Separately, the UAW is seeking a substantial signing bonus for its members as a sweetener to help clinch ratification of a contract expected to include concessions elsewhere, people familiar with the talks have said.
The union's 2003 contract included a $3,000 signing bonus, increased pensions and additional health-care benefits. It also boosted income for the average production worker by $18,500 over the term of the deal.
UAW leaders have suggested some impatience with the pace of the negotiations in a letter to UAW local presidents on Monday, which was obtained by Reuters.
UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and Vice President Cal Rapson, who are leading the union negotiations with GM, have cautioned that the union would set a firm deadline for talks to conclude if progress stalls. GM employees, meantime, continue to report to work as usual.
GM, Ford and Chrysler said before talks began that they were seeking sweeping concessions from the UAW to close a cost gap with Toyota Motor Corp they say amounts to more than $30 per hour for the average factory worker.
REUTERS PBB BD2005