The United Auto Workers union has backed Ford Motor Co. into a corner in labor talks that have brought generous contract settlements with two of Ford's biggest rivals, DaimlerChrysler AG and General Motors Corp., according to analysts and auto industry officials who have been monitoring the negotiations.
GM agreed to a new four-year deal late Tuesday night. DaimlerChrysler signed a practically identical contract Sept. 16.
The DaimlerChrysler agreement, covering 75,000 UAW-represented employees, was ratified several hours before the union signed its proposed contract with GM, where 143,000 UAW members work.
No date has been announced for a ratification vote at GM. But some sources familiar with those talks said a vote would be taken within two weeks.
Both agreements provide annual wage increases of 3 percent over four years, plus an upfront, one-time signing bonus of $1,350. Also provided are cost-of-living increases and improvements in pension benefits.
Analysts expect Ford to match those economic benefits, primarily because the auto industry currently is rich. Annual new-vehicle sales in the United States are approaching an all-time record of 17 million cars and trucks. Factories, especially passenger-truck plants, are working overtime to keep up with consumer demand. U.S. automakers now have cash reserves of $50 billion.
But Ford's problem is how to solve the long-running dilemma of jobs vs. efficiency--without provoking a work stoppage that could leave it stuck in neutral while the rest of the industry is running at top speed, according to analysts at the Pennsylvania-based Autofacts Group, an industry consulting and research firm owned by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
At the core of the problem is Ford's apparent need to spin off its in-house Visteon Automotive components group, without running afoul of language in the new DaimlerChrysler and GM contracts that place a moratorium on shedding corporate assets.
Both GM and DaimlerChrysler could afford such an agreement, because they already had divested themselves of major assets before the current labor talks began. In April, for example, GM completed its spinoff of its giant Delphi parts division. DaimlerChrysler, on the other hand, long has been the least vertically integrated of the three biggest car companies doing business in this country.
That has a direct competitive effect on Ford. DaimlerChrysler, for example, can buy high-quality components from around the world at very favorable prices, largely because it isn't wedded to an in-house supplier that has its same high wage rates.
Thus, "the wild card" at Ford "is Visteon," the Autofacts bargaining analysis said. "Current industry thinking has Ford preparing to unhook its captive supplier and merge it with Lear Corp.," the fifth-largest parts supplier in North America, the Autofacts report said.
Several sources have suggested some possible ways out for both Ford and the UAW.
One source said that Ford might partially reduce its Visteon costs by selling off the in-house supplier's overseas operations and holding on to the U.S. component.
Others suggested that a remedy might exist in the UAW agreement with Delphi, which gives laid-off union-represented employees there the right to move back into GM jobs if and when those jobs become available.
But, for the moment, the UAW has agreed to continue working at Ford under an extension of a three-year contract that expired Sept. 15. Though a strike-authorization vote has been taken, no one really wants to upset the flow of products and profits during these boom times, analysts say.