DETROIT (AP) – Blue-collar workers at General Motors and Chrysler have about two weeks to make a difficult choice: stay on the job and face layoffs or possible wage and benefit cuts, or take cash to leave, only to risk seeing the money tied up in court if their company files for bankruptcy protection.

The murky government-funded future of the two wounded automakers is making it particularly tough to make a decision about their latest buyout and early retirement offers, and that’s hampering the companies’ efforts to further pare their work forces.

“I keep going back and forth about it,” said Charles Vega, who commutes about 60 miles each way from Toledo, Ohio, to a Chrysler pickup truck plant in the Detroit suburb of Warren.

“I could wind up having a job and not be able to pay my bills,” he said. “I can’t afford to work for $15 an hour, to drive all the way up there and work.”

Both companies are negotiating with the United Auto Workers for contract concessions that are required by the terms of their government loans. Together, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC have accepted $17.4 billion and say they need up to $21.6 billion more.

While the companies prefer to avoid a bankruptcy filing, it’s up to the Obama administration’s auto task force to decide whether they’ll be forced into Chapter 11 to restructure their debt, rewrite their union contracts and emerge as healthy companies.

GM and Chrysler have reached tentative deals with the UAW on changes that will help the automakers become more competitive. No details have been announced, however, while negotiations continue on a way for the companies to give equity instead of cash to fund union-run trusts that will take over retiree health care expenses.

Vega, 48, who has worked for Chrysler 24 years, can get $75,000 cash and a $25,000 voucher to buy a car if he takes the buyout option to leave the company. Workers eligible for early retirement can get $50,000 and a $25,000 car voucher.

So Vega, a production worker whose base pay is around $60,000 per year, is considering the $75,000 buyout and trying to get another job. But after taxes, the money buys him only about one year of pay, and rising unemployment means job hunting has gotten tougher. So he’ll probably stay on and run the risk of Chrysler going into bankruptcy.

“I probably won’t do it,” he said of the buyout. “I’ll probably just go down with the company.”

GM’s offers, to nearly all its UAW-represented employees, are less lucrative. The Detroit company’s offers include $20,000 cash and a $25,000 car voucher.

“We’ve had quite a few people that have inquired, but they’re waiting for some information to come out of Detroit before they make the final move,” said Jim Graham, president of a UAW local at a GM small-car plant in Lordstown, Ohio, near Cleveland.

GM workers have until March 24 to make a decision, while Chrysler’s deadline is March 27.

The economic components of GM and Chrysler’s tentative labor deals are patterned after the agreement workers at Ford Motor Co. ratified this week, although there are some differences, UAW Vice President Cal Rapson said in an e-mail to GM plant-level union officials.

The union agreed with Ford to freeze base pay but eliminate cash bonuses and cost-of-living pay raises and eliminate the jobs bank in which workers get most of their pay while they’re laid off.

Chrysler’s roughly 26,800 UAW production workers make about $29 per hour, while GM’s 62,000 UAW-represented workers make around $28. In its 2007 contract, the UAW agreed to allow some new hires to be paid $14 per hour with lower-cost pension and health benefits than older UAW workers.

Graham said he doesn’t blame the union for keeping the Chrysler and GM deals secret to avoid bargaining in the press, but the lack of certainty has sent Vega to attorneys and other experts for advice.

“The risk is extremely high. They could go into Chapter 7 (liquidation) and we would get absolutely nothing,” Vega said.

GM spokesman Tony Sapienza said the company does not believe bankruptcy is its best option, but if it does file for Chapter 11 protection, the company would have to obey its labor contracts.

“The bankruptcy code has strict criteria which must be satisfied before a collective bargaining agreement can be rejected, including evidence that the company is bargaining in good faith with the union on new terms and evidence that the union has not rejected any proposal for a new agreement without good cause,” he said in an e-mail.

UAW spokeswoman Christine Moroski and Chrysler spokesman Max Gates declined to comment.

Gary Chaison, an industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said he doesn’t expect this round of buyouts to draw many workers. Previous offers have depleted the pool of people willing to leave, he said, and the offers aren’t as good as in the past.

When GM made its first round of buyout and early retirement offers in 2006, 35,000 workers jumped to accept the payouts of up to $140,000.

Workers also fear the unknown, Chaison said. They don’t know what their wages and benefits will be if they stay, and they risk the possibility of losing everything if they take the offers.

“Even if it’s a structured bankruptcy, no one knows what the terms will be,” he said. “There’s not enough really pulling them into a buyout-type arrangement.”

AP-ES-03-11-09 1713EDT

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