VANCOUVER, AUG. 26 -- In a major break with collective bargaining tradition, auto dealers are becoming involved in Ford Motor Co. labor talks with the United Auto Workers Union.
For different reasons, both Ford and the UAW are bringing the dealers into their discussions.
Members of the company's dealer advisory council are being asked to work with the UAW quality subcommittee in the negotiations to address complaints about product problems and dealership practices, according to Ford officials interviewed here at the annual Lincoln-Mercury national dealer meeting.
The unusual step comes at the behest of UAW leaders who contend that union jobs are being jeopardized by the loss of new car sales caused by poor dealer service, poor preparation of new cars before they are delivered to customers and mistreatment of customers in dealership showrooms.
"Their feeling is that they are busting their tails to build quality cars, only to have their work undermined by some dealers," said Joseph A. Kordick, Ford vice president and general manager of the company's parts and service division.
The union believes "bad dealers are threatening their jobs," Kordick said.
The UAW currently is talking with Ford and General Motors Corp. to replace contracts that expire Sept. 14.
Job security is the top issue at both companies. But that matter primarily has been discussed in terms of limiting outsourcing -- the use of auto components made by outside manufacturers, foreign and domestic.
Outsourcing is still a key concern. But product quality and consumer satisfaction on the retail end are gaining importance in the talks, Ford officials said.
The UAW's demand for improved dealer performance "can't do anything but help us," said Edsel B. Ford II, general sales manager of the Lincoln-Mercury division.
"The union buys cars just like we do, and I suppose they've had some problems that they want to see corrected. But I'm not sure that they knew about all of the things we've been doing to correct those problems," Ford said.
Kordick said he tried to explain Ford's dealer improvement programs in a meeting two weeks ago with UAW vice president Stephen Yokich, the union's chief negotiator with Ford, and with members of the UAW's quality subcommittee.
Yokich could not be reached for comment today. But several UAW sources did confirm that the meeting took place.
Kordick said that the session with Yokich began on a hostile note, with some of the UAW leaders threatening to call a consumer boycott against Ford dealers who have poor consumer satisfaction ratings.
Kordick said he told the union that about 15 percent of Ford's estimated 5,600 dealers "were causing problems," but that the other 85 percent were doing "a very good job."
Federal and state laws limit the kinds of actions an automobile manufacturer can take against errant dealers, all of whom are private business people who usually operate their franchise independently of their supplying companies.
At any rate, Kordick said, Ford will "assiduously avoid" taking any punitive action against its dealers, but he said the company has told the union that it will take a serious look at its complaint and report its findings to the quality subcommittee within several weeks.
Most dealers interviewed here, speaking privately, took a dim view of the UAW's complaint and reported threat. They pointed out that, despite any problems Ford dealers might have, the company as a whole is earning record profits. However, a report released this month by California-based J.D. Power and Associates, an auto market research firm, said that Ford's Lincoln dealers in particular have some problems that need immediate correction.
More than one-half of Lincoln owners experience problems at delivery, a figure that is 8 percentage points higher than the industry average for new car delivery complaints against dealerships, the Power report said.
The report said that Lincoln's Continental and Town Car models, which are the company's biggest moneymakers, "contribute significantly" to delivery problems.
Delivery problems range from chipped or scratched paint to engine and drive train difficulties that could have been adjusted at the dealership before the car was turned over to the customer.