DETROIT — UAW President Gary Jones on Monday delivered a strongly worded message to Ford Motor Co. to kick off contract negotiations: Times have been good, and the companies must pay up.
The message portends contentious talks as the union and Detroit 3 negotiate over wages, health care benefits, manufacturing investment and other topics. The union, Jones said Monday, will demand more for its workers despite calls from the automakers for flexibility as an economic downturn potentially looms.
"Despite record profits, labor is still being asked to take concessions," Jones said in remarks addressed to Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, CEO Jim Hackett and other company leaders, calling it a "race to the bottom" that harms U.S. workers.
"Our jobs have been outsourced to companies paying lower wages in the United States, Mexico, China and all over the world," he said. "This must stop."
Jones also brought up Ford's new alliance with Volkswagen Group, saying the union will "look very hard and with great concern at any alliance with them or other non-labor-friendly company."
The opening comments were more aggressive than in recent years. Both sides typically offer platitudes during their handshake ceremonies before they dig in during private discussions.
"I think it's obvious from the remarks on both sides that we have our challenges ahead of us," said Bill Dirksen, Ford's vice president of labor affairs. "Our opportunity collectively is to find solutions to those challenges. I think we have a track record of success in that regard."
Jones declined to speak to reporters after the event, but UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said the comments were a "very good reflection of the tone of the membership."
Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of automotive, said after the ceremony that he was confident both sides could work out their disagreements.
"There's a lot going on in the industry," Hinrichs said. "Every negotiations are complex. But if you start with the premise that we're in this together, that's a good starting point."
He said the automaker's tie-up with VW "doesn't affect the manufacturing situation here," since the partnership so far centers around vehicles for overseas markets.
Ford's union workers ratified their current contract, which expires in September, in 2015 by a razor-thin margin, with 51.4 percent voting to approve it. Talks this year are expected to be even more difficult.
Ford is amid a companywide reorganization that has included slashing salaried jobs and eliminating low-margin sedans, although the automaker employs the most hourly UAW members -- 55,000 -- among the Detroit 3 and builds 80 percent of its U.S. vehicles domestically.
The rank and file are pressing for bigger raises and a shorter grow-in period to top wages, among other priorities. During its special bargaining convention earlier this year, the UAW said it wanted to slash one year or more off the eight-year progression new hires take to earning the top wages, which was bargained in the 2015 talks.
The union this year increased its strike fund investment to prepare for potential work stoppages, although both sides on Monday said they hope to reach an agreement without such actions.
The UAW is expected to pick a target company to bargain with first around labor day. Hinrichs said Monday Ford is comfortable wherever it's selected.
"We've had successful negotiations where we didn't lead, and we've had successful negotiations where we did lead," he said. "Our view is, whatever order we go in, it's our responsibility to work with the UAW to find solutions in both parties' interest and to keep the business competitive."