16,500 at GM Opt for Early Retirement : Autos: The number is nearly double what was expected. It will help the No. 1 car maker trim its bloated work force.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 16,500 hourly workers--nearly double the number expected--have taken an early-retirement offer from General Motors, company and union officials said Wednesday.

The program's wide acceptance gives a boost to the struggling auto maker's efforts to trim its bloated work force. It also provides further evidence of a new cooperative spirit emerging between GM and the United Auto Workers union.

The early-retirement plan, announced in December after negotiations between GM and the UAW, provides retirement incentives to workers 50 and older who have been with GM at least 10 years.

GM pushed for the early retirements as part of a larger plan to pare its work force by 74,000--including 54,000 union jobs--by the mid-1990s. The offer came as a special fund providing laid-off workers full pay was running out of money.

When the plan was announced, analysts and union officials estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 employees would take the buyout. Monday was the deadline for applying.

"It's fair to say that we are happy that the response was far more than we expected," a GM spokesman said.

In a statement, UAW Vice President Stephen P. Yokich said he is pleased with the program because it protects the income and health care benefits of retiring union workers. "We've said all along that the current agreement is a valuable instrument for solving problems in a mutually satisfactory way," he said.

The program allows workers ages 50 to 61 who have at least 10 years at GM to retire with full pension benefits, even if they get another job. Those 62 and older are also eligible for $13,000 toward the purchase of a new U.S.-built GM car or truck. A $450-million transfer from a fund set aside for retraining workers will pay for the program.

The early retirements could benefit some UAW members who until recently were in GM's "jobs bank," a $1.7-billion fund that provided them full pay even after their jobs were eliminated.

When that fund ran out of money Monday, the 20,200 jobs-bank workers were officially laid off. They are continuing to receive about 95% of their pay through a supplemental benefit program.

"We are hoping some of those people will be recalled," UAW spokesman Reg McGhee said. "We don't know how many at this point."

The job cuts come as the company is trying desperately to turn itself around--particularly in North America, where GM has lost an estimated $12 billion in the last three years.

GM's goal is to turn a profit in North America in 1993. In order to do so it will have to downsize considerably.

Last year, GM announced plans to close 23 plants, and its goal is to cut its hourly work force to 250,000 by the mid-1990s from 304,000 at the end of 1991. With the early retirements, the labor force has been reduced to 271,500.

GM has also cut its total salaried employees to 79,000 from 91,000 in 1991. The company has said it will cut 8,000 more white-collar jobs this year.

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