Holden, General Motors' Down Under affiliate, faces the threat of rolling strikes unless settlement can be found to deadlocked enterprise bargaining negotiations, writes Mike Duffy.

Any stoppage would frustrate the car maker's plans to smash last year's local production of 133,151 cars and station wagons.

Holden's 7000 workers will attend stopwork meetings on Friday at the South Australian vehicle assembly plant and the Victorian engine facility.

It would be the first time in a decade that car assembly at Holden has been stopped by industrial problems.

Workers are certain to vent their anger when they hear the of the impasse.

The secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union John Camillo said: "Holden is rapidly running out of time before the current agreement expires on August 15.

"If no resolution can be found before that date, we have the option to use rolling stoppages to press for our log of claims.

"At the moment, Holden is making heavy demands on flexible work arrangements, but is reluctant to provide details.

"The company wants to roster programmed days off and cut Christmas holidays to boost production.

"They want, want, want and to add insult to injury, they have not got around to even discussing our ambit claim for 8 per cent a year wage increases over the three year life of the agreement.

"We are prepared to negotiate if there is give and take.

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"At the moment Holden wants flexibility without illustrating it is prepared to be flexible itself."

Holden's position at the negotiating table has been seriously eroded by Ford's agreement to grant pay increases of five per cent per year for three years.

"If Ford can afford 15 per cent, then Holden can afford more," Camillo said.

Toyota Australia is not due to renegotiate its workplace agreement until 2002.

Mitsubishi Motors managing director Tom Phillips said last night that, while negotiations with unions had not been finalised, he anticipated an early resolution.

Holden is the prime union target because of its huge profitability, its No 1 position in the marketplace plus the strength of its export programme.

If Holden's workforce stages strike action, the flow-on effect is certain to affect tens of thousands of workers in the components sector.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union is acting as lead negotiator in the enterprise bargaining agreement, with the full backing of other car industry unions.

The dispute is understood to have caused the car maker to shelve until next March plans to introduce a third shift at Elizabeth – major expansion of production which would have opened up jobs for an additional 300 workers.

Any loss of production will cost Holden dearly.

The car maker claimed 21% of the national vehicle market in the first half of the year.

Already, production of Commodore sedans, wagons and utilities [pickups] and the long wheelbase Statesman/Caprice is lagging months behind sustained demand.

While domestic sales are strong, Holden has to satisfy lucrative export orders to the Middle East and elsewhere which are earning the company valuable overseas income.

The company plans to ramp up daily production from 570 to 600 vehicles in September.

Production is about to begin on Holden's exciting new Commodore Coupe and it wants good stocks at its dealers before the end-of-year launch.

Holden last night did not respond to a request to explain its position in the dispute.

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