Although the United Auto Workers' official strike target is Ford Motor Co., it is General Motors Corp. that is most likely to face a walkout in the current contract talks, industry experts and Wall Street analysts say.
The negotiations are aimed at replacing agreements that expire at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14. Some 335,000 GM workers and about 104,000 Ford employes are affected by the talks, the outcome of which could determine the future of U.S. auto makers in a market increasingly under attack by foreign car companies.
The key issues at both companies deal with job security for the union and production improvements -- in terms of higher quality at lower costs -- for the manufacturers. But as the strike deadline approaches, it appears that Ford is in a better position than GM to settle without a walkout, according to analysts and other sources familiar with the negotiations.
"There's more dividing labor and management at GM than there is at Ford," said David Healy, auto industry analyst for Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. in New York. "The chances for a significant walkout at GM are pretty good."
Analysts at Merrill Lynch Economics Inc. in New York agreed. Ford, with record profits and healthy sales, has been on a roll in recent years, the Merrill Lynch analysts said, but GM has been stumbling badly and losing market share and profits.
Even more, in the important area of component costs, GM is at a tremendous disadvantage compared with Ford, Chrysler Corp. and the many foreign companies now competing in the U.S. market.
GM produces nearly 70 percent of its components itself at UAW wages that match those the company pays in its vehicle assembly operations. But Ford goes to less-expensive non-UAW sources for at least 50 percent of its components. Chrysler, which negotiates with the UAW next year, relies on UAW sources for only 30 percent of its components.
As a result, Ford can afford to be more generous than GM in devising job-security and compensation packages for its UAW-represented workers, said a spokeswoman for Susan G. Jacobs, manager of automotive research for Merrill Lynch Economics.
"Ford will probably make certain offers that GM can't match. GM can't afford a contract that's too expensive," which means that GM is taking a harder line at its bargaining table on matters of production costs, Jacobs' spokeswoman said. "We're predicting a two- or three-week strike against GM."
A similar prediction has been made by William C. Melton, vice president and senior economist with IDS Financial Services Inc. in Minneapolis. GM's planned and actual plant closings affecting 30,000 workers nationwide, its decision to scrap profit sharing for employes last year while it awarded $169 million in bonuses to top executives, and the company's pressing need to further reduce production costs all bode ill for a peaceful settlement, Melton said.
"An auto strike against GM is a very high probability, and most likely will start in late September and last for most of the fourth quarter," Melton said.
GM officials decline to speculate on strike prospects. But all of the company's top executives have said that they will not accept a contract patterned after a Ford agreement if that contract fails to meet GM needs.
Pattern bargaining -- settling with one company and then using that contract to make competing companies accept similar agreements -- simply will not apply in this case "because, today, the differences between the companies are more pronounced," said Alfred S. Warren Jr., GM's vice president for industrial relations and the company's chief labor negotiator.
GM and UAW officials still say they believe they can settle without a strike. But both sides say reaching that goal will be difficult.
Chrysler has its worries, too, even though it has another year before bargaining with the UAW. The Canadian Auto Workers, this week chose Chrysler as a strike target in contract talks in their country.
Current CAW agreements with Chrysler, Ford and GM expire Sept. 14. But a major strike against Chrysler Canada Ltd. could shut down many of Chrysler's operations in the United States, auto industry analysts said.