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Chrysler Bidders Wooing Union

Far more crucial to DaimlerChrysler than the few dollars separating the offers are two key questions: Who will preserve workers’ benefits? And who will ensure Chrysler’s long-term health?

April 10, 2007

Odd but true: In the bidding for the Chrysler Group, the dollar amounts of the purchase offers will not determine the winner.

Las Vegas billionaire Kirk Kerkorian’s $4.5 billion bid last week to acquire Chrysler falls close to rival offers by Magna International Inc., Cerberus Capital Management and Blackstone Group.

But DaimlerChrysler isn’t going to pick a winning bid because it’s worth a few extra dollars. Far more crucial are two other questions: Who will preserve workers’ benefits? And who will ensure Chrysler’s long-term health?

In this bidding contest, strip-and-flip speculators need not apply. Perhaps mindful of his reputation as a ruthless investor, Kerkorian is reaching out to the workers. One source says Kerkorian is offering the unions a 10 percent equity stake in Chrysler, plus a seat on the board.

In return, the UAW would have to accept concessions on workers’ benefits.

Other bidders also are expected to propose employee stock ownership plans, a tactic sometimes used when a unionized company restructures. But the thorniest aspect of the deal involves retiree health care.

Chrysler’s future health care liabilities are estimated at $16.7 billion. The bidders are asking the UAW to take responsibility for those costs by establishing a fund called a “voluntary employee benefits association.” The trust would be administered by the UAW, which would assume all future financial risks.

In return, the buyer would cough up enough cash to cover substantially more than half of those liabilities—most likely $10 billion or so, predicts one source.

Then there’s the issue of Chrysler’s long-term future. DaimlerChrysler has good reason to ensure the Chrysler Group’s survival. First, the German automaker may well end up getting paid with stock in the new company, rather than cash.

Second, DaimlerChrysler wants to avoid any legal repercussions that would arise if the Chrysler Group fails. Would the parent company be held responsible for workers’ pensions and benefits?

So, DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche must ask himself who is best qualified to guide the future of an independent Chrysler.

Is it Cerberus’ Wolfgang Bernhard, former Chrysler COO? As Zetsche’s one-time right-hand man, Bernhard has an intimate knowledge of the company.

Or maybe the best strategists are Don Walker and Mark Hogan, senior executives at Magna International. After all, they have deep knowledge of Chrysler, Magna’s largest customer. And Magna has experience assembling vehicles.

Don’t count out Neil Simpkins, Blackstone’s experienced automotive deal-maker. And there’s always Jerry York, the former Chrysler Corp. CFO who is now Kerkorian’s advisor.

The answer is critical because the winning bidder is not necessarily the company that offers the most money upfront.

Any deal has to include major concessions from the union. And if UAW president Ron Gettelfinger is going to sell this deal to 65,500 skeptical workers, he must demonstrate that jobs and benefits will be protected.

It could be a tough sell. But if the winning deal includes a stock ownership plan, Gettelfinger can remind UAW members of Chrysler’s history. In 1981, Chrysler received an emergency government loan guarantee.

As part of that deal, the UAW granted Chrysler wage and benefit concessions worth $1 billion. Four years later, a resurgent Chrysler partially offset those concessions by distributing more than $550 million in cash and stock to its 87,400 U.S. and Canadian workers.

At one point, the employees’ stock was worth 22 percent of Chrysler.

An employee stock ownership plan is a benefit granting employees stock in their company.

Kirk Kerkorian would offer Chrysler workers stock worth about 10 percent of the company. In 1985, Chrysler workers earned $8,000 apiece when they cashed in Chrysler stock, which they had received in return for wage concessions.

Related story: With Chrysler’s Future Uncertain, Iacobelli Is on the Hot Seat

Filed by David Barkholz and Bradford Wernle of Automotive News, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.