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UAW-Ford Motor Co. auto contract takes a promising right turn

After one week of serious face-to-face conversation, bargainers for the UAW and Ford Motor Co. are on the brink of consensus on a four-year deal for the automaker's 41,000 unionized rank and file that might include a $7,500 signing bonus and union-won promises of new and retained jobs at Ford.

If the financials are true, the UAW will have squeezed out $2,500 more per person in bonus money for Ford Motor auto workers than it did for their UAW contemporaries at General Motors Co., where veteran UAW auto workers accepted $5,000 lump-sum bonuses from GM in lieu of COLA allowances and pay raises.

The UAW confirms the two sides are bandying "economic issues" right now and the pressure is on. Ford Motor's rank and file expect a better deal than GM got because Ford Motor made billions of dollars in profit in large part because union workers made concessions and sacrifices without being saddled with government bailout loan repayments. But UAW leaders cautioned that no numbers for the unsettled contract are set yet and called out a Detroit TV news reporter for a "reckless" broadcast claiming $13,500 in bonus money is on the way for each unionized Ford Motor worker.

In response to the WDIV TV broadcast, the UAW said on a Facebook page: "These false rumors are irresponsible and unfair to our members. They are designed to intentionally create false expectations.”

Meantime, an international news service and Detroit's daily newspaper, quoting a UAW official, said UAW plant officials have been summoned to Detroit for a Tuesday meeting "in anticipation of reaching an agreement" on a new contract with Ford Motor. Officials most likely would take contract details to union workers for a ratification vote subsequent to that meeting.

There is a push on both sides of the bargaining table to settle things quickly at Ford Motor because the UAW can legally strike Ford if talks get contentious, and Ford, like GM, wants to keep profits coming by the fistful, unfettered by distractions. The union officials coming to Detroit on Tuesday could consider taking the idea of a vote to strike to the membership for the first time in 35 years, if the UAW leadership presses for that, but the conversation right now is rhetoric-free and isn't acrimonious so that is unlikely.

Union workers have been more interested in job retention and the adding of U.S. jobs than they have been in monetary gains, and so far all sides have been able to wrangle much of what they really want to satisfy their very different needs. But as Ford Motor workers have had more time to digest the GM deal, the more they're letting UAW leaders know they expect that it is time for Ford to reward them economically for being good soldiers during tougher times.

Negotiations began in July but lingered and continued on after the 2007 UAW-Ford Motor contract expired on Sept. 14. Ford Motor and the UAW agreed to keep working under the old deal until the union and General Motors, the largest of the Detroit Three automakers, wrapped up their four-year agreement.

It just took three days for that to happen on Sept. 17 and a few days after that 48,500 UAW GM workers approved their new four-year contract by a better than 2-to-1 margin in nationwide voting at locals.

With GM put to bed, relatively fat and happy, the UAW wanted to bargain with Chrysler Group LLC, but after Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne groused that UAW President Bob King was showing favoritism to GM UAW members over Chrysler UAW members, the UAW cooled to Chrysler and shifted most of its focus to Ford Motor after the i's were dotted and the t's crossed on the GM pact.

Talks have continued to secure a new contract for Chrysler's 23,500 UAW members, but without the same on-the-march sense of urgency that has marked the UAW's negotiations with GM and Ford Motor.

Late Sunday and early today the Reuters news service and Detroit Free Press both reported that the UAW has just about concluded its business with Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor, which has been negotiating with big-gun bargainers who include UAW President Bob King and UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles.

The rank and file have confidence in their negotiators and while they're unsettled about the delay, they're holding tight.

"This is good thing that Bob King and Jimmy Settles with the Ford UAW team are not rushing this," UAW member Rob Johnson said. "They know this is a historic contract and will affect people's lives for a long time. Thanks Bob and Jimmy. We have your back!!!"

If Ford Motor doesn't deliver to the union's satisfaction, there are those who are willing to walk a picket line.

Ford Motor worker Willie Wheeler has this advice for UAW bargainers who represent him: "Take your time and get it right or STRIKE!!!!!!!!"

But it is looking like it will not come to that. Reuters and the Free Press quoted UAW spokeswoman Michele Martin as saying the UAW is "hopeful" that a labor contract can be agreed to by Tuesday.

On a UAW Ford Department Facebook page, the union team bargaining for Ford Motor workers confirmed in a post Sunday that it is persisting to win a deal fast that is meaningful.

"Negotiations commenced early this morning and will continue throughout the day," the statement said. "We, like you, are anxious to get a tentative agreement completed. However, we will not let this urge override our commitment to you, the membership. We will not leave the bargaining table until we are satisfied we have reached an agreement that addresses the concerns of our membership. Thank you for your understanding and support, and we will continue to update you."

Martin told Reuters a deal by Tuesday is possible but a final deal has not been confirmed. UAW leaders were told to pack and go Sunday so they could have time to travel to Detroit for a Tuesday briefing.

For its part, Ford Motor says "mutual trust" and the "respect" it has for the UAW will lead to a fair agreement.

"We are committed to negotiating this year with the same transparency and honesty we always have upheld," John Fleming, executive VP of Global Manufacturing and Labor Affairs for Ford Motor, said at the beginning of contract talks in July.

"It is more important than ever that we continue to look to the future, and not to the past. We simply cannot go back to the old way of doing business, which would threaten our momentum and hurt our ability to bring new investment and jobs into our U.S. plants. We can and will protect and grow jobs."

All three four-year contracts signed in 2007 between the UAW and each of the Detroit Three expired on Sept. 14. And all three contracts were extended by the UAW and by the U.S. car companies without a whimper, except for Marchionne's treatise on King's "irresponsibility" after King canceled a scheduled negotiation session with Chrysler with little notice to take a meeting on the fly with GM.

The weak sister in the Detroit Three contract mix is Chrysler, whose financial fortunes have been more down than up. Chrysler's roller-coaster balance sheet makes it unlikely for the UAW to get much out of a deal from a car company that has the added leverage of being able to negotiate aggressively without the threat of a worker strike.

The UAW is part owner of Chrysler under the terms of the massive, multibillion-dollar bailout loan in 2009 from the federal government to the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based carmaker.

When the bailout money came, ostensibly to save the company and all of its American jobs, the union agreed to a no-strike clause.

Now the impact of that decision has emerged. If Chrysler and the UAW can't come to a meeting of the minds, an independent arbitrator will decide everything for them.

UAW Chrysler negotiators say they're working diligently to make things happen. On a UAW Chrysler Facebook page, negotiators asked members to be patient.

"... We are still working tirelessly. Your concerns regarding contract negotiations have been communicated. Your questions have not been ignored, and we will continue to keep you informed ..."

Hawke Fracassa covers the auto beat from Detroit for TorqueNews.com. He can be reached at hawkefracassa@aol.com or (248) 747-1550. Follow him on Twitter @HawkeFracassa.

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