Labor negotiators for Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers are talking overtime--trying to settle a new contract before a union-set strike deadline, set for 11:59 p.m. tonight.
Ford is the last of Big Three auto manufacturers in the United States to meet in nearly round-the-clock bargaining sessions with the UAW. The other two, General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG, recently accepted rich four-year agreements with the union.
But money is not an issue at Ford, any more than it was at GM and DaimlerChrysler. The U.S. auto industry is running at full throttle and is on the road to record sales and profit for 1999.
Some bargaining sources said yesterday that Ford already has agreed, in principle, to the same economic deal accepted by its rivals: a 3 percent annual wage increase over the life of a new, four-year contract; improved cost-of-living adjustments to help offset increases in the inflation rate; improved pension benefits; and a one-time, upfront signing bonus of $1,350.
The most intense discussions at Ford yesterday revolved around the fate of the company's in-house components manufacturer, Visteon Automotive Systems, which employs an estimated 23,500 UAW-covered employees.
Ford is under pressure from investors to sell, spin off or otherwise divest itself of Visteon in an effort to help the company become more cost-efficient and competitive in a world where Ford is the last major car company to own an in-house parts supplier.
That pressure increased May 28 when GM, also in response to investor demands, spun off its giant Delphi Automotive Systems auto parts division. Delphi had $28.5 billion in sales in 1998, with 78 percent of those sales going to GM.
Since gaining its independence, Delphi has cut costs, increased earnings ($395 million, a 283 percent gain over second-quarter 1998) and boosted its non-GM business by 11 percent.
That impressed Wall Street. Investors believe that Visteon, which had $17.8 billion in sales in 1998, could turn in a similarly improved performance if it is set free from Ford.
But UAW President Stephen Yokich has argued that yielding to investor demands could cost his union jobs. He has adamantly opposed Ford's plans to sell off Visteon to Lear Corp., North America's fifth-largest auto parts supplier, or to spin off the company to Ford investors.
To put pressure on Ford, Yokich asked for and received provisions in the GM and DaimlerChrysler contracts that prevent the shedding of corporate assets in which the UAW has a bargaining unit.
DaimlerChrysler, the least vertically integrated of the largest car companies in this country, had no problem accepting that anti-divestment language. And GM, unburdened of Delphi, was equally sanguine in agreeing to a moratorium on asset dumping.
But Ford President Jacques Nasser and Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. both have insisted on the need to let Visteon find its own way in the current environment of the global auto industry. "We need to preserve our flexibility," Ford told reporters in Los Angeles last week.
Spinning off Visteon would give the parts maker the chance to cut costs, raise profit and gain more non-Ford business, Ford said. An estimated 92 percent of Visteon's sales now go to Ford, according to the parts maker's 1998 financial statement.
But Yokich, in a recorded telephone message this week to UAW members, was unyielding in his opposition to divesting Visteon.
"The company has been very stubborn regarding the language [on asset shedding] that we have set in the other two companies," Yokich said. "I can tell you that we are not leaving here until we get a pattern [similar] agreement."