UAW plans to target Ford in contract negotiations

August 31, 1993|By New York Times News Service

DETROIT -- The United Automobile Workers union picked Ford Motor Co. yesterday to be the lead company in negotiating a new labor contract with the Big Three automakers.

In choosing the No. 2 automaker over General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp., the union settled on the financially strongest American automaker, indicating that it has little interest in giving back gains it has made on issues such as health care benefits and job security.

That is bad news for GM, which is in worse shape than Ford and had hoped to lead the negotiations, which might have allowed it to tailor the industry's contract to reduce its own burdens.

Indeed, the selection of Ford caused some analysts yesterday to predict that GM, which can ill afford the new pension benefits or job-security provisions the union wants, would resist significant parts of whatever Ford and the union hammer out. That could make it more difficult for the union to preserve its "pattern bargaining" tradition, and perhaps provoke a strike at GM.

GM employs about 3,400 workers at its plant on Broening Highway, which makes the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans. Owen Bieber, the union's president, rejected the suggestion that GM would break the pattern, saying a contract negotiated at Ford could be adjusted for General Motors.

At a time when Ford and Chrysler are picking up market share, the selection of Ford over GM also underscores a shift in relations among the Big Three.

"This is a powerful symbol that GM is no longer the leader in the industry," said Sean P. McAlinden, research scientist at the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. More prosaically, the union announced it wanted more money, and it saw Ford as the best candidate to meet its demand.

The companies still share some common interests, such as limiting health care costs. But there are sharp differences. GM is zTC facing an unfinanced pension liability that it predicts will reach $19 billion by the end of the year, while Ford's pension plan is flush. Ford and Chrysler are hiring workers, but GM is shutting plants and idling thousands of workers.

Although Ford is unlikely to undercut GM deliberately, analysts said that may well be a result of the bargaining process.

Under the UAW's policy of pattern bargaining, Mr. Bieber will sit down with senior Ford officials today to start intense negotiations aimed at reaching a new contract.

The current contract, negotiated in 1990, expires at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 14. The union has been negotiating separately with the companies since June 24. With the selection of the lead company in negotiations -- the "target" -- the negotiations enter a new, more intense phase. This year's contract will cover about 400,000 workers and 390,000 retirees and surviving spouses.

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