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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — General Motors’ inability to adapt to new labor relations and public concern over U.S. jobs being exported are contributing to the automaker’s labor woes, a University of Tennessee law professor said Monday.

Patrick Hardin said auto industry labor relations have changed from ”backscratching relationships” of the past and are still evolving, but GM has not kept pace.

”In the 1970s and early 80s, the market was stable with no real competition,” Hardin said. ”Unions and companies had a deal to split the pie. The occasional strike concerned 20 cents more in hourly pay and costs were just passed on to the consumer.

”Those days are gone in the auto industry. Today, each of the Big Three is finding a new path, a new relationship with the union. Ford has done the best job and has the most solid labor relations. General Motors has not yet found the path.”

Workers at GM’s Saturn plant in Spring Hill — GM’s only U.S. plant still turning out cars – voted Sunday to authorize a strike possibly by the end of the week.

GM has lost more than $1.2 billion since workers at two parts plants in Flint, Mich., walked off the job in June. More than 100 of GM’s U.S. plants are affected and 186,000 workers idled.

”The strike in Flint, Mich., shows that there is a lot of trouble in GM labor-management relationships,” Hardin said. ”I am fearful that a strike at Saturn may be just as difficult to end as the one in Flint.”

Hardin said public fear that U.S. auto jobs could be shipped overseas is helping the UAW ”win the public relations war,” even though GM has announced no plans to export jobs, and many foreign companies are building plants here because of quality U.S labor.

”The union seems to have persuaded the public that the strike in Flint is not about outdated pay scales — which is actually one of the issues — but about preventing jobs from going offshore,” Hardin said.

”Most Americans believe they are striking to keep the company from moving jobs to non-union contractors or to plants in foreign countries. The union is fearful of that but I have seen no announcement in which GM plans to do that.”,P> —