FLINT, Mich. -- A federal judge Tuesday formally ordered the United Auto Workers and General Motors Corp. into arbitration over the automaker's claim that the union's lengthy strikes are illegal.
District Judge Paul V. Gadola also warned that any attempts to delay or prolong the arbitration may be met with a contempt-of-court citation and fines. He said his jurisdiction also extends to enforcing any decision or award of the arbitrator.
UAW lawyer Michael Nicholson argued that the order was unnecessary and beyond the court's jurisdiction. After Judge Gadola last week admonished the two sides to set a date with independent arbitrator Thomas Roberts, the automaker and its biggest union set the first hearing for today.
As a result, Judge Gadola's order came as a surprise. Lawyers for both sides had thought they could brief the judge by telephone, but he told them to come into court.
If GM were to win its case, it likely would ask for a back-to-work order from the court and seek financial damages that could cripple the union. Most legal experts say they doubt the automaker will win, but GM lawyer Frank Jaworski was upbeat.
"We're very pleased today that the court has basically granted us what we asked for last week," Mr. Jaworski said. "We're confident legally in our position, despite the many so-called experts that make comments about our legal theories and proceedings."
Mr. Nicholson declined to comment after the hearing.
At issue is GM's contention that the strikes involve disputes of a national scope over which the union may not strike under the UAW-GM national contract. The union says the strikes are primarily over local issues, such as alleged plant health and safety violations and production rules.
In late afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange, the company's stock was off 18Ü cents at $68.93Ü per share.
Negotiations at the two Flint, Mich., plants where 9,200 workers walked off their jobs June 5 and 11 resumed Tuesday, but no progress was expected as both sides prepared for today's hearing.
"There may be meetings, but there's nothing going on," said Norm McComb, first vice president at UAW Local 659. "Everybody's busy getting ready for the courts."