Uaw Weighs Bid for Chrysler

by : Jenny Mclane

The United Auto Workers (UAW) is reviewing a long shot proposal from a group of Chrysler Group workers in Toledo who are thriving employee ownership of the ailing American division of DaimlerChrysler AG.

The "Employee Buyout Committee," a group composed of about 25 hourly workers, is proposing that workers take a 70 percent stake in Chrysler with Daimler retaining the remaining stake. Michele Mauder, a member of the committee who works at Chrysler's Toledo Supplier Park, where the Jeep Wrangler is manufactured, said that the workers believe employee ownership is the best option for Chrysler's 50,000 UAW workers.

In an interview, Mauder added, "The bottom line is the corporation won't take the hit, it's the employees, the shareholders and the consumers. So we need to work as a team. The employee buyout committee was notified by the UAW last month that its proposal is being evaluated by the union's legal department."

The proposal was mentioned by a shareholder at Daimler's annual meeting. On Tuesday, Mauder received a written notification from Daimler that the proposal is being reviewed. Roger Kerson, the UAW spokesman, could not be reached for comment late Thursday. Chrysler spokesman Mike Aberlich, on the other hand, said that the proposal from the employee group was sent to Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda and is "expected to be reviewed by the company's legal department."

Mauder anticipates that the proposal will be discussed at a Daimler supervisory board meeting this week. "Unless they come up with a better plan, this is it," said Mauder. She noted that Chrysler workers owned shares in the company in the 1980s after Chrysler turned to the federal government for loans to bail it out of a financial crisis. "It's really in Daimler's ball court now."

"The issue here is employee ownership is both a long shot and a slippery slope," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "So much depends on the details and the structure of the reorganized company."

Mauder sent a letter on April 9 to plead the employees' case to Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche. "It appears the sale of Chrysler may not only affect our employees and retirees, but essentially could affect the entire automobile industry depending on who acquires our company," Mauder wrote. "One never knows until one asks. By no means do we want to interfere with any potential sale of Chrysler. Mr. Zetsche, you have made the statement that all options are on the table. Our committee would hope that this option would be held in comparison to the other possible offers."

The high-definition acceleration behind the potential purchase of Chrysler could be likened to the power given off by an . Although the workers would prefer Chrysler remain with the German automaker, the letter said, "If DaimlerChrysler is adamant to sell and Magna (International Inc.) would be the leading contender, our committee would prefer the option of partnership with them versus a private equity firm. Magna, the Canadian operations, had an established employee equity and profit participation program."

Daimler is currently in negotiations with potential Chrysler purchasers, including two of the country's biggest private equity firms, Cerberus Capital Management LP and Blackstone Group, which is working with Centerbridge Capital Partners. Also in the running is Magna, which has partnered with Onex Corp., a Canadian buyout firm.

The UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has said the private equity bidders for Chrysler also have talked to the union about giving workers a stake in the automaker. But Gettelfinger has repeatedly said he would like Daimler to keep Chrysler and pledged to use his seat on the 20-member DaimlerChrysler supervisory board to oppose any deal that takes Chrysler private. The supervisory board meets next week in Germany. Other labor representatives on DaimlerChrysler's board have said they wouldn't support a bidder that would break up the company.

Mauder said that she has researched employee stock ownership and is working with a team of experts on the subject from Kent State University. The group is hoping to get the support of local unions and to finally join them in their struggle.