Ford Motor Co. often touts its roots as a family business. Now, some UAW leaders are using that pride to appeal to Ford family members to halt the possible spinoff of Visteon Automotive Systems.
But as union workers peppered Ford family members with e-mails and letters, Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. last week continued to suggest that parts maker Visteon could be spun off.
'We need to preserve our flexibility,' Ford told Automotive News after a speech in Los Angeles last week.
Visteon's future is the most contentious issue as national contract talks between the UAW and the company intensify this week. The pace of talks in Ford subcommittees picked up last week and UAW President Steve Yokich is joining the bargaining.
The company's possible spinoff of Visteon already has ruptured the company's harmonious relationship with the union, overturning years of careful cultivation by both sides.
In fact, a startling role reversal has occurred. In recent years labor unrest and costly strikes have plagued General Motors. But last week, the UAW and GM reached a tentative four-year labor pact with uncharacteristic smoothness. The contract covers both GM workers and those at the automaker's former components subsidiary, Delphi Automotive Systems Corp.
In contrast, Ford's exploration of a Visteon spinoff to compete head-to-head with Delphi has produced such rancor that it could trigger a national strike.
The UAW's pattern labor agreement reached with DaimlerChrysler prohibits the company from closing or spinning off any asset or business unit constituting a bargaining unit.
The union wants to retain the clout of an estimated 23,000 UAW Visteon workers as full-fledged Ford Motor Co. employees. The Visteon work force represents about 23 percent of the UAW Ford hourly membership.
Meanwhile, some local UAW leaders, citing Ford's roots as a family business, want the Ford family to protect Visteon as a member of the extended Ford family.
'We are personally appealing to them to get involved and stop it,' said Jack Vernier, financial secretary of UAW Local 845 at Visteon's Sheldon Road plant in Plymouth, Mich. 'We are pleading loyalty and dedication. If they put their heads together they could stop it.'
Most of the letters are being sent to Chairman Bill Ford, board member William Clay Ford, and board member Edsel B. Ford II.
For example, Vernier wrote to Bill Ford.
'I said, `Mr. Ford I have had the privilege of working for the company for 30 years. My son works in your plant. Someday I hope his son works in the plant. Please consider what you are doing with the spinoff and the people who have been loyal to you,'' Vernier said.
Local 845, which represents 1,677 UAW workers, is leading the grassroots movement to halt a Visteon spinoff. The plant produces heaters, air-conditioner components and radiators for a number of Ford vehicles, including the Ford Expedition, the Ford F-150, the Ford Taurus and the Ford Crown Victoria.
It is no accident that Local 845 is generating hundreds of letters and is encouraging other locals to do the same. Bill Ford is well known at the plant because he was general manager of Ford's climate control division from August 1992 until May 1994.
'He knows a lot of people in my plant,' Vernier said. 'I can't believe he is doing this to us. He would come out and have coffee with you. He is a decent human being.'
'It is sort of like a family business,' said John Fosket, chairman of UAW Local 849 at a Visteon plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., when asked why UAW workers are seeking Ford family intervention. 'A lot of people treat it as a family business and respect the family name.'
MEET THE PEOPLE
Fosket's 11/2-page letter to Bill Ford invited the chairman to the plant to meet the people the company is considering removing from the Ford payroll.
'In my letter I told him about a lady who fell and cracked her tailbone. The foreman said, `We need to get the parts out. Will you not go to medical until the end of the shift?' She had about four hours to go and she did it. She worked the remainder of the shift,' Fosket said. 'I told him that is the kind of dedicated people you have at this plant.'
The Ypsilanti plant is Visteon's sole U.S. factory for starters, Fosket said.
Visteon wants more non-Ford business, and Ford argues the unit may need to stand alone to bid competitively on new contracts.
That is a viewpoint union members have disputed in e-mails and letters to Ford CEO Jac Nasser and Visteon President Craig Muhlhauser.
'We are already generating new business,' Fosket of Local 849 said. 'We have new work and we are not spun off. People want to do business with Ford Motor Co.'
Visteon's future is being discussed in an increasingly strained atmosphere, based on the comments of UAW local leaders. The international UAW declined to comment.
'It's not as good out here as it used to be,' said Brien Quantz vice president of UAW Local 900 representing 6,977 workers who build the Ford Expedition, the Lincoln Navigator, the Ford Escort and the Ford Focus in Wayne, Mich. 'It's not the same trust that was there before.'
Said Vernier at Local 845: 'I have worked at the plant for 30 years. I have never seen labor relations worse.'
Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin contributed to this report