The United Automobile Workers union has said it will make major concessions in order help the US auto industry move forward. The announcement came after a meeting of members of the UAW‘s Ford, GM and Chrysler national councils yesterday.

In a statement the UAW said it had overwhelmingly approved a series of recommendations from the union’s international executive voard, including delaying company payments to the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA), the independent trust that is scheduled to take over payments for retiree health benefits in 2010.

It also approved the suspension of the controversial ‘jobs bank’ programme. Additionally the council agreed to consider making further modifications to the 2007 national agreements.

The UAW’s president, Ron Gettelfinger stressed that while the union would allow a delayed payment schedule for the VEBA, the union would protect UAW retirees’ health care.

“We are simply going to defer those payments until a later date at a guaranteed interest,” he said.

The union’s job security programme, often referred to as the jobs bank, has helped workers adjust to rapid downsizing in the auto industry but Gettelfinger acknowledged it had become a lightning rod.

In a briefing paper on its website the UAW argues that non-union foreign brand plants, such as Toyota‘s San Antonio truck plant in Texas, have been operating similar schemes. The union argued that there was little difference between Toyota paying plant workers to paint park benches in the city rather than building vehicles for several months and the jobs banks operated at UAW-organised ‘Big Three’ plants.

“With 4,500 workers earning their full paychecks while its San Antonio truck plant was idle this summer, Toyota had more workers in its version of the ‘jobs bank’ at a single plant than Chrysler, Ford and GM currently have in all of their factories put together,” the union said.

Nonetheless, Gettelfinger last night said the union’s auto department vice presidents would begin working with the companies on the mechanics of dismantling the programme.

“We are well aware of the number of workers who are impacted,” Gettelfinger said. “However, we think that it’s a responsible thing for us to do.”

Finally, said Gettelfinger, the union would convene UAW Chrysler, Ford and General Motors bargaining committees to meet with their company counterparts.

“We will immediately engage with our elected bargaining committees to work with our vice presidents and their staff,” he said. “We will review the agreements and we are going to consider modifications.”

UAW members, Gettelfinger emphasised, will have final say in any changes to union-negotiated agreements.

“Any modifications that we make in those agreements we will take back to our membership for ratification.”

Gettelfinger and the automaker CEOs will testify at congressional hearings in Washington today (4 December) and tomorrow.

“We’re looking forward to going,” said Gettelfinger. “It will give us a chance to answer questions. I know that members of Congress appreciate us coming in and trying to help them better understand the concessions we’ve made.”