Resistance From Union in Ford Vote
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
By BILL VLASIC and NICK BUNKLEY
Published: October 13, 2011
DETROIT — Voting by Ford’s unionized workers on a new contract has been unexpectedly negative, signaling a rejection of its hold-the-line pay provisions and raising at least the possibility that Detroit’s fragile labor peace could be disrupted by a strike.
With voting completed Thursday at plants that account for roughly 20 percent of Ford’s 41,000 members of the United Automobile Workers union, the four-year tentative contract had been rejected by about 55 percent, the union said on a Facebook page dedicated to its negotiations with the company.
In the last couple of days, 63 percent of workers at two big assembly plants in Michigan and Illinois voted against the deal even though it promised larger bonuses and more new jobs than contracts negotiated with General Motors and Chrysler.
Workers have indicated that they are most upset that the contract keeps wages frozen for those on the traditional pay scale, particularly in light of bonuses given to top Ford executives as the company, the country’s second-largest automaker, has rebounded from the recession. Many are also upset that people hired in the last few years will continue to be paid much lower wages, though the second-tier pay scale was increased by several dollars an hour in the new contract.
“I’m fairly confident that Ford can afford to pay us more,” said Gary Walkowicz, an opponent of the deal who works at a Ford plant near the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. “We’ll be talking about more than 10 years without a raise by the end of this contract.”
The surprising early showing against the contract prompted the U.A.W. to alert union locals to begin preparations for a strike as soon as next week if the tentative agreement failed to pass. Voting will continue through Tuesday.
“This will be our next course of action if the tentative national agreement is rejected,” Keith W. Brown, president of U.A.W. Local 245 in Dearborn wrote in a blog posted Thursday.
Mr. Brown, who represents workers in Ford’s research and engineering departments, added that he was “still hopeful that we will not need to strike.”
Some workers opposing the deal say union leaders are merely raising the possibility of a strike to scare more of its members into ratifying the deal.
And some labor experts said the big payouts to Ford’s senior management — its executive chairman, William Clay Ford Jr., and chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, each received $26 million in compensation last year — might be stirring up a protest vote at the first plants to cast ballots. Postings on the union’s Facebook pages have criticized the paychecks of “greedy” executives and empathized with the protests on Wall Street about compensation in the financial services industry.
“There’s no question the executive salaries played into this,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It sets the wrong tone and invites comparison to the issues on Wall Street.”
The U.A.W.’s president, Bob King, and his aides were pushing hard for workers in other large plants to support the contract and counteract the negative vote received thus far.
In previous contracts, union members have occasionally rejected agreements early in the process, only to have the last voting factories support the deal overwhelmingly. A big swing factor could be the voting that concludes this weekend at Local 600 in Michigan, which represents about 6,000 workers at Ford’s Rouge assembly complex.
“The early votes tend to reflect anger over what’s not in the contract,” said Mr. Shaiken. “The later votes tend to reflect a more realistic view that this is the agreement they are going to get.”
Ford is the only American auto company that the U.A.W. can strike during this round of contract talks, but both the company and the union have indicated little interest in a showdown. Beyond a strike, if the ratification should fall short, the two sides could hold further talks, or Ford could impose a lockout on the union workers.
A Facebook post by the union warned that the company could hire nonunion replacements, but a subsequent post backed away from that claim. If Ford workers reject the deal, the union is prepared to give the company a three-day notice of its intention to strike, according to a post attributed to Jimmy Settles, the U.A.W.’s chief negotiator with Ford.
“The company is not obligated to continue bargaining,” the post said. “Their position is that they negotiated in good faith and presented an agreement which is more than competitive.”
The union agreed to “no strike” concessions at G.M. and Chrysler as part of the Obama administration’s financial bailout of the two companies in 2009.
G.M. workers have already ratified their new contract, and voting at Chrysler, which reached a tentative deal Wednesday, will occur within the next two weeks.
Ford has offered $6,000 bonuses to its workers to sign the contract, compared with $5,000 at G.M. and $3,500 at Chrysler. In addition, Ford agreed to give workers a portion of their 2011 profit-sharing checks — about $3,750 — in November rather than making them wait until next year.
The plants in Wayne, Mich., and Chicago that rejected the deal are in line to get third shifts, adding hundreds of jobs. However, some of the workers at those plants expressed concern in Internet postings that the added jobs would reduce their overtime and that workers with higher seniority would transfer in from other plants, making their job less secure in the event of a future downturn.
Ford earned $6.6 billion in 2010 and $4.9 billion in the first half of this year. But all three Detroit carmakers have said they need to hold the line on labor costs during the negotiations to protect their still-tenuous recoveries. Analysts say Ford’s deal provides considerable savings to compensate for the bonuses and other costlier provisions; the credit ratings firms Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s are each reviewing Ford for possible upgrades if the contract is approved.