GM CEO Barra joins talks; deal to end strike may be near

End to GM strike near?

General Motors CEO Mary Barra joined negotiators at the bargaining table, an indication that a deal may be near to end a monthlong strike by members of the United Auto Workers union that has paralyzed its factories.

Barra and GM President Mark Reuss were in the bargaining room early Tuesday, a person briefed on the talks said. But it was not clear if they remained in negotiations, said the person, who didn't want to be identified because the talks are confidential.

The appearance of two key executives is a strong sign that bargainers are closing in on a contract agreement that would end the strike, which began on Sept. 16.

Another person briefed on the talks says the only issues that remain are faster pay increases for workers hired after 2007, apprenticeships for skilled trades workers, and the specifics of winding down a joint union-company training centre. The person also didn't want to be identified because the talks are ongoing.

Both sides are under pressure to end the walkout, which has cost GM close to $2 billion in profits and forced workers to live on $250 per week, about one fifth of their base pay. Last week, with the strike dragging on, the union said it would increase strike pay to $275 per week.

The union has summoned its national council of factory-level leaders to Detroit for a meeting Thursday that was billed as an update on contract talks. The group could be assembling to vote on a tentative agreement. It also will decide if workers should return to their jobs before or after they vote on the deal.

The strike, now in its 30th day, is the longest against an automaker since a 54-day strike in 1998 in Flint, Michigan. That strike cost the company $2 billion. The union also went on a brief two-day strike against General Motors in 2007.

Negotiaters last week appeared to be deadlocked and each side issued letters or statements accusing the other of failing to bargain in good faith. A quiet period began over the weekend and negotiators worked into the night to resolve most of the remaining issues, according to both people briefed on the talks.

A union demand that all vehicles sold in the U.S. be built here apparently has been resolved, but the terms are unknown. The company did offer $9 billion worth of investments at U.S. factories, $7.7 billion from the company and another $1.3 billion from joint ventures. The $1.3 billion includes a battery cell factory in the area of Lordstown, Ohio, where GM wants to close an assembly plant.

They also apparently have agreed on wages and lump-sum payments, although the amounts are unknown. A company offer last week would give workers 4% lump sums in the first and third years of the four-year contract, with 3% pay raises in the second and fourth years. This would be in addition to annual profit-sharing checks. This year workers got checks for $10,750 each. GM also offered to lift the $12,000 cap on profit-sharing checks. The union also sought sweeter retirement benefits.

After initially trying to cut health care costs, GM agreed to leave benefits and payments untouched. Union members pay 3% premiums while most workers at large companies in the U.S. pay over 30%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Both sides also have agreed on a path for temporary workers to get permanent jobs. GM had proposed that they become permanent after three uninterrupted years of work, but that was shortened. GM initially offered an $8,000 bonus to workers to sign the contract, but sweetened that to $9,000.

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