A grievance gambit that the UAW is running at Ford Motor Co. during the home stretch of national contract negotiations is a risky one for UAW President Bob King.
If this blows up in his face it could cost Ford a strike by hourly workers and damage King's initiative to organize the U.S. assembly plants of German and Asian automakers.
To recap: In early 2010, the UAW filed a grievance against Ford, signed by 35,000 hourly workers, alleging that the carmaker acted improperly when it restored merit pay, tuition reimbursement and a 401(k) match to salaried workers without doing the same for UAW-represented workers.
The grievance had been grinding away in the administrative process. But the UAW pushed it into the public domain a few weeks ago by taking it to arbitration. An arbitration hearing is scheduled for Sept. 15, the day after the current four-year contracts expire between the UAW and Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.
The claim is of dubious merit. Ford management has always retained the right to run the business as it pleases. That's true regardless of vague language in UAW contracts in 2007 and again in the 2009 modifications that the company would keep the union appraised of efforts to ensure "equity of sacrifice" between company stakeholders.
Set that aside. Why is King making a big deal about it now? Neither the union nor Ford are commenting.
But Gary Walkowicz, a UAW bargaining committeeman at the Ford Rouge assembly plant in suburban Detroit, said he expects King to settle the grievance as part of contract negotiations to make Ford's offer to workers look more generous than it really is.
Walkowicz reasons that negotiations will not produce the pay raise and cost-of-living adjustment restoration that workers want. So the union will try to sweeten profit-sharing and a performance bonus plan with some monetary resolution of the grievance.
King desperately wants to avoid a strike at Ford that would really hurt a collaborative image that the union has tried to portray to the transplants.
King's only chance at organizing a transplant -- and it's a long shot under the best of circumstances -- is to prevent the old adversarial UAW from taking hold of the "cooperative" UAW of the 21st Century.
Here's the rub, though: Isn't a grievance adversarial on its face? A Merriam-Webster definition of grievance: "a cause of distress (as an unsatisfactory working condition) felt to afford reason for complaint or resistance."
Sounds a little like the old UAW to me. The union is painting Ford as a partner willing to run a double-standard when it comes to salary vs. hourly compensation. King also has been highly critical of the salary and bonuses given to Ford CEO Alan Mulally.
So can Ford management be trusted in these negotiations to do the best it can by auto workers?
That's not a great question to have on the lips of the rank-and-file when there's no raise in the offing and a transplant organizing drive to be won.