THE nation's No. 2 automaker is now the No. 1 target of the United Autoworkers Union.
On Aug. 30, the UAW named Ford Motor Company its strike target, putting on hold contract talks with General Motors Corporation and Chrysler Corporation. That gives Ford barely two weeks to negotiate a new contract or face a possible strike by nearly 100,000 hourly workers.
Ford officials had actually been lobbying the union to go first, noted chief negotiator Jack Hall. ``Anytime you are the first and have the opportunity to make the pattern, it is to your advantage.''
Contract talks began simultaneously at each of the Big Three almost two months ago. Following decades-old tradition, the union is now focusing on the company it thinks will provide the best agreement.
``Historically, the UAW went to GM when it wanted money,'' says Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley. ``It went to Ford or Chrysler, but particularly Ford, when it wanted to establish new principles,'' such as job security provisions.
But this time around, industry analysts say Ford is in the best position to provide both cash and concepts. The automaker's earnings doubled during the second quarter, to $775 million. And while its archrival, GM, continues to cut jobs, Ford plans to hire thousands of new employees during the next three-year agreement.
Ford has made it clear, however, it will not simply roll over to placate the union, a fact demonstrated by its first contract offer. It called for union concessions on health care and a two-tier wage structure giving lower wages to new employees.
``That package that is out there is not an acceptable package,'' warned UAW president Owen Bieber at a news conference.
Mr. Bieber insisted the union will not budge on health care, even though both sides agree it is a major problem. Ford spends $700 on health-care costs for every car and truck it builds in the US. (For GM, the figure tops $1,000 a vehicle.)
While the GM talks have been put on hold, that automaker will continue to be a presence at the Ford bargaining table. The UAW is well aware of GM's ongoing financial problems, and its need to increase productivity - now the lowest of any US automaker.
``We're a union that has recognized that if the world has changed around you, you cannot continue to do things the way you did in 1929,'' Bieber said.
ON the other hand, even though Ford is now hiring new workers, the UAW will want the contract to contain extensive job security provisions, like those in the 1990 settlement. They provided a steady income to tens of thousands of workers laid off during the recession - mostly at GM. But it also cost that automaker $3.35 billion.
There will be another unseen presence at the bargaining table. Thanks to a sharp rise in the value of the yen, Asian imports now cost an average $2,000 more than comparable American-made vehicles. That is translating into a sharp rise in the Big Three market share. But analysts warn that if a new contract drives up labor costs, it could choke the domestic industry's nascent recovery.
``I think the UAW understands this,'' says Prof. David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, at the University of Michigan.
``They realize they are in a very tough, competitive battle. The biggest problem is bringing along the rank-and-file. They will ultimately have to sell a settlement to the membership,'' he adds.
Over the decades, the UAW has shown itself ready to go to the mat. During the last strike at Ford, in 1976, the UAW spent 28 days on the picket line. Since then, though, Ford and the union have developed a close relationship. Although Bieber says there are still ``thorny issues'' to resolve, he hopes for a settlement even before the Sept. 14 deadline. Once that is complete, the UAW will move on to GM and Chrysler, using the Ford deal as an industry-wide pattern.