GM agrees to reinstate health coverage for strikers

General Motors agreed Thursday to reinstate all health insurance coverage for its nearly 50,000 striking hourly workers, a sign that the 11-day old strike by the United Auto Workers union might be nearing its end.

“Throughout this negotiation, GM has said that our number one focus was on the well-being of our employees. That remains the case today,” said a letter from Scott Sandefur, the company’s lead negotiator, to union chief negotiator Terry Dittes on Thursday about the health care reinstatement.

Sandefur acknowledged there was uncertainty among employees as to whether they had insurance, despite the union agreeing to pay premiums during the strike.

“Given this confusion, GM has chosen to work with our providers to keep all benefits fully in place for striking hourly employees, so they have no disruption to their medical care,” Sandefur said.

The agreement on health care comes as the two sides resumed negotiations Thursday to reach a tentative agreement that would end the walkout.

There have been other signs of progress in recent days. Dittes sent a letter to members Wednesday saying all unsettled proposals are now at the main negotiating table, rather than some being handled by committees that handle specific issues, such as questions affecting one plant or another.

There is still no agreement on the major issues of pay, profit sharing and job security. But the fact that everything is now at the main negotiating table is a good sign, as is the agreement on health insurance, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor & economics at the Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan think tank.

“I think the agreement on insurance is a positive sign and a sign of some good will,” said Dziczek.

Sources familiar with the negotiations suggest that a tentative pact might be reached in coming days. Rank and file membership would then participate in a ratification vote, though they could return to work before then.

In a letter to UAW members Thursday alerting them to the health care reinstatement, Dittes wrote, “there is no doubt that public sentiment sees [GM originally cutting off health insurance] as a shameful act! It is time for GM to come to the bargaining table with an offer that reflects the hard work of our members.”