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U.S. labor chief tries to calm Fiat Chrysler worker fears

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) CEO Sergio Marchionne (R) and United Auto Workers (UAW) union President Dennis Williams announce a tentative agreement during a news conference in Detroit, Michigan, September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

By Bernie Woodall

DETROIT (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV negotiators were back at the table on Monday days after U.S. union members soundly rejected a proposed four-year contract the two sides agreed on three weeks ago.

The union will try to sweeten the deal for the 40,000 Fiat Chrysler UAW members while the company will try to hold the line on costs that were in the rejected deal negotiators reached on Sept. 15, labor analysts on Monday said.

UAW President Dennis Williams said in a Monday morning Facebook posting to Fiat Chrysler U.S. union members that he will not shift health care costs to workers from the Detroit Three automakers as he tries to lower costs by creating a pool of covered employees from the companies.

Workers interviewed last week by Reuters said they feared that the UAW was trying to create a voluntary employees beneficiary association (VEBA) like the union created for retirees at the three automakers during concessionary negotiations before the recent recession. The UAW thinks that is one of the misconceptions that helped lead 65 percent of Fiat Chrysler voters to reject the proposed deal.

Williams said, "We do not want another VEBA," adding, "We believe that healthcare should be provided by the employer.

"What we do want is to find a way to use our collective numbers and knowledge to be ahead of healthcare inflation rather than to just wait for insurance and pharmaceutical companies to simply hand over a bill to fill their own pockets," Williams wrote on the UAW's main Facebook page as well as one for the UAW's talks with Fiat Chrysler.

The six-paragraph posting began, "You have spoken and we heard you."

It was Williams' first message directly to workers since the rejection of the contract was announced by the UAW on October 1.

The proposed deal would narrow the gap between higher-paid veteran workers and newly hired mainly younger employees and tie some worker compensation to company profit.

Williams also tried to quell talk that the union is helping Fiat Chrysler move jobs to lower-paying Mexico, where Fiat Chrysler, along with every major automaker, has operations. Sources told Reuters and other publications that Fiat Chrysler intends to move car production to Mexico while keeping truck and SUV production in the United States.

"For someone to suggest we endorse products going to Mexico is just nonsense," Williams wrote.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Christian Plumb)