Ford workers edge closer to nationwide strike over labor deal

United Auto Worker members at a Ford plant in Chicago overwhelmingly rejected a proposed labor deal Thursday, leading union leadership to prepare for a strike. All UAW locals have until Tuesday to ratify the deal.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted October 13, 2011 at 7:01 pm EDT

Chicago – The possibility of Ford’s first national strike in 35 years became more of a possibility Thursday when members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Chicago rejected the company’s proposed four-year contract.

Nearly 41,000 UAW members at Ford have until Tuesday to vote on ratifying the contract, which the company says helps give it better leverage among its competitors and will make it easier to hire new workers.

But 77 percent of the 2,317 workers at Ford’s Chicago assembly plant rejected the contract. That followed Tuesday’s news that 51 percent of the 4,000 workers at UAW Local 900 in Wayne, Mich., also rejected the contract.

The UAW is not releasing overall vote count, meaning that the votes at individual locals are coming out piecemeal. In at least one instance, union members have strongly backed the deal, with 64 percent of the 2,000 workers at UAW Local 228 in Sterling Heights, Mich., approving the contract Thursday.

But opponents of the deal say they believe they have the upper hand. Scott Houldieson, the secretary-treasurer of the Chicago local, told Reuters he believed the nationwide “no” count is leading.

The contract is heavy on signing bonuses and profit-sharing in lieu of widespread wage increases.

UAW members complain wage increases for second-tier, or newer, workers are not high enough, and they also criticize the contract for not including a cost-of-living allowance. They say the concessions are not in line with what workers were forced to give up during the past four years.

Another point of contention: the $26.5 million in compensation earned by Ford CEO Alan Mulally last year.

The rejections in Illinois and Michigan prompted the national membership to prepare for a strike. Each of the 58 locals across the country received instructions from Jimmy Settles, vice president of the union’s National Ford Department, to prepare its workers to be ready if called. If a strike is declared, the UAW is expected to give Ford a 72-hour notice.

The last time Ford workers hit the picket lines was in 1976, and the possibility of a first strike since then has made many workers at UAW Local 879 in St. Paul, Minn., anxious.

“Most of our people at this plant have not heard of, let alone seen, a strike, so there’s a lot of unknown. They are totally at a loss to what this is going to be like or what it will entail,” says local president Paul Shropa.

The St. Paul local represents 770 workers at an assembly plant that makes the Ford Ranger, which Ford discontinued this year. The company announced it would close the plant Dec. 22. The local will remain open for the following six months, Mr. Shropa said. In the meantime, his workers are being organized “to be ready at the gates and walk a picket line.”

The contract settled upon between Ford and the UAW leadership calls for a $6,000 signing bonus for new employees, profit-sharing payments to all Ford’s UAW workers of $3,700 for the first half of 2011 and $1,500 for each subsequent year of the contract. Entry-level worker wages will increase to $19.28 an hour – up from about $15.50 now. Ford has said the new deal will help the company hire 12,000 new workers nationwide.

An announcement on the UAW-Ford Facebook page tells workers that Ford “will use whatever resources necessary to continue operating their plants, including the use of scab labor.”

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