FLINT, Mich. -- Top negotiators for General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers differed Thursday on whether a deal to end two strikes against the automaker could be reached by this weekend.
UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker said he doubted a deal could be reached by the weekend, but his counterpart at GM, personnel Vice President Gerald Knechtel, said he thought an accord still was possible.
Even if Friday's "artificial" settlement deadline passes, talks should continue at the same pace, Shoemaker said.
"We have an obligation to keep at it at the same intensity unless it becomes clear the only alternative is to walk away and let it sit for a while," he said. "And I don't expect that to be the case."
There has been speculation that GM has been pushing for a settlement before the weekend so it could be ratified and the two strikebound parts plants in Flint could reopen by Monday. GM's two-week vacation shutdown ends and strike losses begin accruing again Monday.
But Shoemaker said the UAW isn't operating under any deadline.
"The only people I know of that have set those artificial deadlines are the media and the analysts," he said. "We haven't done that."
Even if the Flint plants reopened Monday, it would take several days before parts could start arriving at the first of 26 strike-idled assembly plants across North America.
Talks continued Thursday at the plants. Shoemaker and GM labor chief Gerald Knechtel also have been holding high-level discussions in a suburban hotel room. While Knechtel and other GM officials have declined to comment on how the talks have progressed, Shoemaker has been briefing reporters daily in the hotel parking lot.
Shoemaker dismissed reports that the discussions have expanded beyond disagreements at the Flint plants to broader national issues that have divided GM and its largest union. He said GM should not expect to resolve such issues in these local talks.
Analysts say the settlement must give GM significant changes to improve its competitiveness or its strategy of fighting the strike will be considered a failure. Shoemaker said: "I recognize they've got themselves in a box, but they did that."
One of the two plants on strike is part of GM's big Delphi Automotive Systems parts unit. UAW leaders and workers at the plant have said they fear GM wants to ship most of the plant's jobs to cheaper labor in Mexico and possibly close it. The plants makes engine parts, such as spark plugs and filters, as well as dashboard instruments.
Shoemaker insisted the talks have not gotten into the future of the Delphi unit. The automaker has been grooming Delphi for a possible initial public stock offering of up to 20 percent of the subsidiary. He said he last talked to GM Chairman Jack Smith about the Delphi plans more than a year ago.
Delphi became an issue again this week when it was announced that two parts plants that GM sold to a group of investors in 1996 would be closed. The UAW is fighting the closures, which it says would violate the UAW-GM contract that remained in effect at the plants after they were sold.
Shoemaker acknowledged that GM wants to settle disputes at its parts plants in Dayton, Ohio, and Indianapolis as part of a settlement in Flint, but he said that was unlikely because of the complexity of the issues at those plants.
Shoemaker said two weeks ago that strikes at Dayton and Indianapolis were possible after the Flint strikes are settled. The issues are similar to those at Flint: fear of job losses through contracting to outside suppliers, health and safety concerns, and work rules.
The Flint strikes involve about 9,200 workers. About 161,600 GM workers at assembly and parts plants throughout North America have been idled by the strikes.
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