The new labor contract at Ford may not be so hard for General Motors to swallow after all. By an overwhelming margin, workers at the Ford Motor Company have apparently ratified their contract, a settlement the chairman of General Motors Corporation now says he may be ready to accept, averting a long-expected strike at the nation's largest carmaker.
With the votes counted at all but a few United Automobile Workers locals, the new Ford contract was reported winning by about a 2-to-1 margin.
Union leaders had predicted that the settlement would win strong support. The package promises to provide Ford's 104,000 hourly employees with a pay increase, along with expanded job and wage security guarantees.
The Ford settlement is also expected to serve as a pattern for negotiations at GM. Though its contract expired Sept. 14, the same day as Ford's, talks there were put on hold until a new Ford contract could be negotiated and ratified. The GM talks will now intensify, and a strike deadline may be set for mid-October.
Many observers predicted a long strike at GM, noting that while the union wants the automaker to guarantee the jobs of all 370,000 of its UAW-represented employees, GM is in the midst of closing more than a dozen assembly and component facilities, a project that could ultimately cost more than 30,000 jobs.
And company officials have strongly suggested that more cutbacks are in the offing, particularly if their new contract does not allow GM's many money-losing parts plants to become more competitive.
In early September, General Motors chairman Roger Smith said he did not see how his company could accept any settlement reached at Ford.
Now, however, while he says a new contract must still help GM become more competitive, Mr. Smith appears more willing to use the Ford settlement as a pattern.
``I am hopeful and I am optimistic,'' Smith said Monday. ``I'm hopeful that we can reach an agreement without a strike, and I'm optimistic that we can use the Ford contract as a springboard to adapt it to the differences between Ford and General Motors.''
One factor that may have softened Smith's stand on the Ford contract is a clause that allows GM's rival to lay off workers - despite the job guarantee provisions - in the event of a severe sales slump. GM's sales are off sharply this year, with its market share down about 5 percent from the levels of late-summer 1986.
Also, the UAW has agreed that Ford can go ahead with two previously scheduled plant closings.
With similar loopholes, Smith hinted that GM might also be willing to ``guarantee'' UAW jobs, though he stressed his belief that ``if we're not world-class competitive, no matter what anybody writes on a piece of paper those jobs can't be guaranteed.''
Smith's comments did not entirely rule out the possibility of a confrontation, as he said GM may still seek a two-tier wage structure - where component plant workers would earn less than their assembly plant counterparts. The UAW has long and solidly opposed two-tier wage systems.
Still, many analysts appear to be re-thinking the prospects of a strike at General Motors. Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at San Diego, says that now that he has had a chance to examine it closely, the Ford contract is ``a very promising [pattern] for General Motors ... a contract basically tailored for GM but negotiated at Ford.''
While the UAW boasts that the Ford agreement protects the jobs of all 104,000 hourly workers, Mr. Shaiken says that isn't necessarily the case. In a deep recession, Ford can make as many layoffs as it feels necessary, and even in less severe cases there are ways it can cut its work force.
``This isn't so much job security as it is controlled attrition,'' Shaiken says. ``The company is slowly reducing the work force at half the rate of attrition, which is relatively high in the auto industry. GM gets an added bonus, because its attrition rate is almost twice Ford's.''
On average, Shaiken notes, 3 percent of Ford's workers leave the company each year because of retirement, death, or other reasons, while GM's attrition rate is 5 percent. ``You can see how they could sign something akin to Ford and still pretty much be able'' to make the cuts already planned, he says.