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Tough UAW talks at Ford may dampen kickoff festivities

David Barkholz covers labor issues for Automotive News

Look for a more somber start to the UAW-Ford contract talks on Friday than we saw at General Motors and Chrysler this week. At least, it ought to be.

Ford faces the toughest UAW bargaining among the Detroit 3 in this year's round of talks.

That's because Ford's 41,000 rank-and-file autoworkers will have a real say in how the contract is fashioned.

Unlike their UAW brothers and sisters at GM and Chrysler, hourly workers at Ford can strike. They said no in 2009 to a no-strike concession that workers at GM and Chrysler had accepted under the duress of bankruptcy and government oversight.

The UAW is toothless in the GM and Chrysler talks. Chrysler, in particular, has vowed to hold the line on current labor costs, leaving the UAW only with the weak recourse of binding arbitration if disputes can't be resolved.

Not so at Ford. The restive rank-and-file there wants a wage increase after eight years without one. Those workers also want to claw back some of the $7,000 to $30,000 per person in concessions that they've taken since 2007.

That's a big problem for Ford and UAW President Bob King alike.

Ford's $58-an-hour average labor cost is already $1 or $2 higher than GM's and $7 richer than Chrysler's.

If Ford has to give more than a nice signing bonus and an improved profit-sharing plan as contemplated by GM and Chrysler, it will find itself falling further behind its domestic counterparts.

King also is in a pickle. He speaks often and loudly about not wanting to leave one of the Detroit 3 at a disadvantage. He would like each of the Detroit 3 to have the same labor package.

But that may not be possible at Ford. If King doesn't find more money for Ford workers than GM and Chrysler workers likely will negotiate, the rank-and-file at Ford may reject the contract and force a strike. The big bonuses Ford paid CEO Alan Mulally and Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. this year have also whetted the appetite of hourly workers.

A strike would be a nightmare for King.

It would puncture the image that he's been portraying to the U.S. transplants: The UAW has dropped its adversarial approach and can be a trusted, reasonable partner in all carmaking operations.

King desperately wants to organize one of the U.S. transplants this year. He says it's vital to the UAW's future. I would add it's important to his legacy as well. But say goodbye to that dream if Ford workers strike.

With so much at stake in the UAW-Ford talks, does it make sense to have a celebratory handshake as GM did Wednesday or parade the two sides out in matching costumes as Chrysler did on Monday?

There's no time for showmanship. Negotiators are going to need every last second before the Sept. 14 contract expiration to secure a deal that does enough to satisfy Ford autoworkers without too badly raising company labor costs.

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