U.S. auto workers split in early voting on Ford pact

Reuters
A Ford Fiesta vehicle sits for sale on a dealership lot in Encinitas, California
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A Ford Fiesta vehicle sits for sale on a dealership lot in Encinitas, California July 25, 2011. REUTERS/Mike …

DETROIT (Reuters) - Workers at a large Ford Motor Co union local near Detroit rejected the proposed Ford-United Auto Workers contract in early voting, indicating it could be a cliff hanger until voting is finished on October 18.

The union and Detroit automakers are striving to ink new contracts so they can get on with the business of rebuilding the U.S. auto industry after an historic downturn that led to bankruptcy for two of the three.

Last month, General Motors Co workers voted almost 2-to-1 in favor of a new four-year contract that is slightly less generous than the proposed Ford pact. From early returns, the GM-UAW vote indicated the contract would be ratified.

Late on Tuesday, the UAW and Chrysler Group LLC were still at the bargaining table.

Union president Bob King told plant leaders on Monday that he wanted to present a new tentative agreement between the union and Chrysler on Wednesday morning.

At UAW Local 900, which represents about 2,700 workers at Ford assembly and stamping plants in Wayne, Michigan, 51 percent voted against the proposed contract, and 49 percent were in favor, UAW officials said.

Local 900 is one of the first locals to complete voting on the proposed deal, which was reached last week between UAW and Ford negotiators who had been talking since July.

The UAW represents hourly workers at the three major U.S. automakers. GM has about 48,500 UAW-represented workers, Ford has about 41,000, and Chrysler has about 26,000.

The union said that with 7.3 percent of its locals reporting, 50.1 percent of production workers had voted in favor of the proposed Ford contract, and 54.8 percent of skilled trades workers had voted against it.

TOO EARLY TO CALL

Labor analyst Kristin Dziczek said it was too early to call the Ford contract ratification as being in danger.

"Remember that GM had a big local, Lansing Delta Township (in Michigan), turn their contract down and it still passed easily," said Dziczek, noting that the chairman of Local 900, Bill Johnson, had lobbied against the contract.

"The fact that it came in so close with the chairman opposed to it shows a lot of people still like this agreement," said Dziczek.

Johnson did not return telephone calls for comment on Tuesday.

Both the GM and Ford contracts offer signing and profit-sharing bonuses, but no pay raises for veteran hourly workers, and both allow the companies to expand the use of lower-paid entry-level workers to help lower labor costs.

Ford's tentative deal with the UAW calls for each veteran hourly worker to get at least $16,000 in bonuses. Ford may benefit as lower-paid new workers fill new positions or replace veteran employees.

Heading into this year's talks, the Center for Automotive Research said the cost to the companies of average hourly pay and benefits for production workers was about $58 per hour at Ford, $56 at GM and $50 at Chrysler. That compares to about $54 to $56 per hour at Toyota Motor Corp's U.S. plants and $50 to $51 at Honda Motor Co's U.S. plants.

As a result of 2009 GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, their workers cannot call a strike on contract terms. So, if Chrysler and the UAW have an impasse, either can request binding arbitration. Both King and Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne have said they want to avoid arbitration.

Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy managed by Italy's Fiat SpA .

Ford's unionized workers are allowed to strike.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall)

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