DETROIT – If the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors Corp. (GM) lasts longer than a week or two, it could cost GM billions of dollars and stop the momentum the company was building with some of its new models, according to several industry analysts.
A strike of two weeks or less would not hurt GM's cash position and would actually improve its inventory situation, Lehman Brothers (LEH) analyst Brian Johnson said Monday in a note to investors. But a longer strike would be harmful, causing GM to burn up $8.1 billion in the first month and $7.2 billion in the second month, assuming the company can't produce vehicles in Mexico or Canada, Johnson wrote.
Initially, the strike wouldn't have much impact on consumers because GM has so much inventory, the analysts say. The company had just under 950,000 vehicles in stock at the end of August, about 35,000 less than at the same time last year.
But Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for J.D. Power and Associates, said even a short strike could hurt GM because its new crossover vehicles — the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook — are selling well and in short supply.
"The momentum they've established for those products would be interrupted if there's a supply interruption," Libby said.
GM had about a 65-day supply of cars and trucks as September began, versus a 71-day supply at the same time last year, said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association. The Enclave, he said, is at a tight 24-day supply.
It was unclear what would happen to vehicles that were en route to dealers. The Teamsters transportation union said its 10,000 automotive transport members would not cross UAW picket lines.
The strike will cost GM about 12,200 vehicles per day, according to the auto forecasting firm CSM Worldwide of Northville. If the walkout goes beyond 36 hours, CSM expects vehicle production in Canada to be affected because of a lack of U.S.-built engines and transmissions.
The strike began at 11 a.m. EDT Monday when 73,000 UAW members at about 80 GM facilities in the U.S. walked off their jobs. Talks resumed a short time later as sign-carrying picketers marched outside plant gates, but weary bargainers stopped to rest around 8 p.m. Negotiators were to return Tuesday morning for their 22nd straight day of bargaining.
Union President Ron Gettelfinger said the company wouldn't budge on guarantees of new vehicles for U.S. plants that would preserve union jobs. But he said the UAW is willing to bargain on the issue of the union taking over retiree health care obligations.
"Job security is one of our primary concerns," Gettelfinger told reporters Monday after talks broke off and the strike began. "We're talking about investment and we're talking about job creation" and preserving benefits, he said.
Striking workers will receive $200 a week plus medical benefits from the UAW's strike fund, which had more than $800 million as of last November, according to the UAW's Web site.
The UAW, Gettelfinger said, is willing to talk about taking money from the company to form a retiree health care trust, something he said the union proposed and the company rejected in 2005.
GM wants the trust, called a Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association, or VEBA, so it can move much of its $51 billion in unfunded retiree health care liabilities off the books, potentially raising the company's stock price and credit ratings. It's all part of GM's quest to cut or eliminate about a $25-per-hour labor cost disparity with its Japanese competitors.
"This strike is not about the VEBA in any way, shape or form," Gettelfinger said. "We were more than eager to discuss it," although he said no agreement had been reached.
David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said before the strike began that the UAW leadership may need a walkout to show members that it did all it could to get the best deal.
"They're in a bit of a box, in that they need some drama to get an affirmative vote on this," he said.
GM spokesman Dan Flores said the automaker was disappointed in the union's strike decision.
"The bargaining involves complex, difficult issues that affect the job security of our U.S. work force and the long-term viability of the company," he said. "We remain fully committed to working with the UAW to develop solutions together to address the competitive challenges facing GM."
GM shares fell 20 cents to $34.74 Monday.
The UAW picked GM as the lead company and potential strike target in labor negotiations with the Detroit Three automakers that began in July. An agreement between GM and the UAW would become the pattern for pacts with Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, which have indefinitely extended their contracts with the union.