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Assembly line or picket line? The question looms at Chrysler

Chrysler's 49,000 unionized workers are waiting to see what happens in contract talks before today's 11 a.m. strike deadline. Above, a company plant in Toledo, Ohio. Chrysler's 49,000 unionized workers are waiting to see what happens in contract talks before today's 11 a.m. strike deadline. Above, a company plant in Toledo, Ohio. (MADALYN RUGGIERO/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2006)

DETROIT - As a strike deadline drew closer, thousands of Chrysler workers awaited word yesterday on whether they would be spending their next work day on picket lines or assembly lines.

They also wondered whether a walkout by 49,000 members of the United Auto Workers would be long or short. And they're a little leery of Chrysler's new owner, Cerberus Capital Management LP, which may not behave like auto companies of the past.

At factories and union halls, workers filled out paperwork for strike pay and signed up for picket duty as today's 11 a.m. deadline approached. Negotiators continued to talk at Chrysler headquarters, working most of Monday night and into yesterday with only a short break.

Cerberus hired Bob Nardelli, formerly head of Home Depot Inc., as Chrysler's chairman and chief executive, and Jim Press, Toyota Motor Corp.'s top North American executive, as vice chairman and president. Neither has had to deal with the UAW, although the company retained former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda and made him vice chairman and president.

The strike deadline does not necessarily mean workers will walk out. The UAW could extend its old contract hour by hour, as it did with General Motors Corp. before a two-day strike last month.

The UAW ended the strike and announced a tentative agreement with GM on Sept. 26. The company's 74,000 UAW members were voting on the pact, with totals to be released today.

The union normally settles with one US automaker and then uses that deal as a pattern for an agreement with the other two Detroit-based automakers. But several industry analysts have said Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. have different needs and therefore need different contracts.

The bargaining appeared to center on the UAW granting the same healthcare cost concessions to Chrysler as it did to GM and Ford in 2005, as well as how much Chrysler would pay into a company-funded, union-run trust that would take on its roughly $18 billion worth of retiree healthcare costs. The union agreed to such a trust in the case of GM last month. Also at issue is the union's desire for job security pledges, said a person briefed on the talks.

Chrysler plans to temporarily idle five assembly plants and some parts factories during the next two weeks in an effort to adjust its inventory to a slowing US market. It will also try to reduce its salary and contract workforce by roughly 1,500 more people.

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