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U.S.A.:Ford, UAW talks go briskly

But officials at GM and Chrysler are less optimistic about fast contract conclusions

By Mark Truby and Mike Hudson / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- Negotiations between Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers are moving quickly and several major issues have been resolved -- raising the possibility a new labor agreement could be reached within the next few days, company sources said.

Officials at General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group also reported progress Thursday but were less optimistic about a quick conclusion, saying numerous bargaining issues remain unsettled.

Ford entered the talks with the stated goal of closing four U.S. plants and laying off 12,000 hourly workers, leading some analysts to speculate the two sides would have difficulty hammering out a deal before the Sept. 14 deadline.

Ford officials, who asked not to be named, said Thursday that significant progress has been made. The union struck the same tone in a telephone recording to its members this week.

Ford, which lost $6.4 billion in 2001 and 2002, along with GM and Chrysler are seeking a contract that provides more flexibility, including relaxed work rules and competitive compensation costs, to better compete with foreign automakers.

"It's really moving along," one Ford official said.

Hanging over the negotiations Thursday was news that the Big Three's U.S. market share dropped to an all-time low of 57.9 in August.

While some issues have been resolved, many remain snarled in negotiations. All three companies are pushing hard for the UAW to relax work rules and allow more flexibility in plants, but are meeting resistance from union bargainers. The automakers would like to be able to operate with fewer job classifications and have greater freedom to move workers from plant to plant.

Ford's restructuring plan calls for the closure of U.S. plants including Edison Assembly in New Jersey, St. Louis Assembly in Missouri, Cleveland Aluminum in Ohio and Vulcan Forge in Dearborn.

"Ford would not be signing off on any agreement that doesn't complete its restructuring plan," said Sean McAlinden, an auto analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

Ford CEO Bill Ford Jr. is becoming increasingly involved in the negotiations and is communicating regularly with UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, company sources said. Gettelfinger has been making the rounds, meeting with his bargaining teams and officials at all three auto companies. The UAW declined to comment Thursday.

"The pace of negotiations has picked up," Richard Shoemaker, the UAW's vice president in charge of bargaining at GM, said Thursday in a recorded telephone update for workers. "Subcommittees are meeting daily and in the evenings as negotiators focus on key issues."

The UAW and Detroit automakers are negotiating a new labor contract that covers wages, jobs, health care and pensions affecting more than 300,000 workers and nearly a half-million retirees and their spouses.

Gettelfinger met with bargaining committees Thursday to gather information to help in the selection of a lead company to focus upon. Typically, the union will pick one company to set the initial contract with, then ask the other two automakers to match the agreement. A decision had not been announced as of Thursday evening.

Analysts say the union may drag out its choice until one of the three submits an offer that substantially differs from the other two. As of now, sources close to the talks say the three companies have offered relatively similar wage and benefit packages.

"If (Gettelfinger) is looking at three identical offers," said McAlinden said, "then by continuing on with all three (instead of choosing a leader), he may be hoping one will break in a different direction and then he can quickly jump on it and take that deal to the other companies."

In a related matter, Ford may be revisiting plans to build a pair of new car-based sport-utility vehicles in Oakville, Ontario, according to a report in the National Post in Toronto.

The UAW has spoken out against Ford's decision to build the new vehicles in Canada rather than the company's assembly plant in Atlanta. The Post reported that Ford now has told parts suppliers it has not committed to building the two SUVs in Canada and the vehicles could still be built in Atlanta. Ford declined comment.

CAW President Basil "Buzz" Hargrove said Thursday that he doesn't know whether the report is accurate.

"I have no reason to believe that Ford commitment to Canada has changed," Hargrove said. "The UAW is trying to protect jobs, so I am not surprised or offended."

Some Canadian Auto Workers officials have speculated that Ford may be making the move to help reach an agreement with the UAW.

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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