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Old 08-30-2006, 03:49   #1 (permalink)
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US:UAW chiefs warm to more Ford buyouts

UAW chiefs warm to more Ford buyouts

Local leaders told automaker is weighing buyouts for all; details may come in 2 weeks.

Bryce G. Hoffman, Brett Clanton and Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- Top United Auto Workers leaders met Tuesday with local union officials from Ford Motor Co. plants nationwide and talked about worker buyouts and other issues related to the automaker's foundering turnaround.

One UAW local leader who attended the meeting told The Detroit News that top UAW officials said Ford is considering expanding its current buyout and early retirement offers to all of the company's hourly workers. He said many local union leaders in attendance urged the UAW to push for the buyouts as a better alternative to layoffs.

No details about potential buyouts were provided at the meeting, but the UAW local leader said a final agreement between the union and Ford could be announced in about two weeks, during another meeting of the local union leaders.

Another local union official who attended the meeting said buyouts had been discussed, but that it was not clear whether Ford would make the offers available to all plant workers.

Most UAW leaders were tight-lipped as they left the session, declining to answer reporters' questions.

"Sworn to secrecy," said Jerry Sullivan, president of UAW Local 600, which represents workers at Ford's F-150 pickup plant in Dearborn.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and Bob King, the union's chief Ford negotiator, attended the four-hour, closed-door meeting at the UAW-Ford National Development and Training Center in Detroit, but did not speak to reporters afterward.

"Local union leaders met today to discuss the ideas and input of UAW-Ford workers about the current situation at Ford," King said in a statement released after Tuesday's meeting.

"We're focused on our continued efforts to deliver top-quality vehicles to consumers, because UAW members know that the surest route to job security is a strong recovery for Ford in its core North American market."

Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans declined to comment on the UAW meeting, saying the automaker does not disclose details of ongoing talks with the union.

The meeting came as Ford, under increasing pressure to stanch losses and shed costs, prepares to announce an expansion of its 7-month-old "way forward" restructuring plan next month that could include more job cuts and factory closings.

The plan as it was outlined in January aimed to close 14 plants and eliminate up to 30,000 hourly jobs by 2012, but has been criticized for moving too slowly to address the company's problems. By contrast, General Motors Corp. has won praise for a turnaround plan that will cut nearly 35,000 hourly jobs this year and close all or part of 12 plants by 2008.

In preparing a broader restructuring plan, Ford is exploring every option for cutting costs.

While the UAW may be reluctant to accept more cutbacks after agreeing to a string of landmark cost-cutting deals in recent months at GM, Ford and bankrupt auto supplier Delphi Corp., even deeper cuts at Ford may be key to the automaker's recovery prospects. That the UAW called together union officials from across the country Tuesday for an update signals the two sides may be close to reaching a deal.

"If they're two or three weeks away from an actual restructuring announcement, we're probably looking at a proposal or two that might come from the company (that the UAW is) being asked to consider," said Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

Some UAW local leaders expressed support for expanded buyouts even before Tuesday's meeting.

"From what I see, if Ford upped its offer to $140,000 like GM did, a lot of younger people would consider it," Local 249 Vice President Jeff Wright, who helps oversee United Auto Workers activities related to Ford's Kansas City, Mo., plant, told Dow Jones for a story published Tuesday.

Ford workers are worried about possible layoffs in the wake of the automaker's plan to expand its restructuring plan and its announcement earlier this month that it will cut fourth-quarter production 21 percent.

While many UAW officials are concerned about the loss of membership, which means a financial hit for the union through lost union dues, Ford's recent cuts have signaled the company will be smaller going forward and that is a reality the UAW must accept.

Ford, which lost $1.4 billion in the first half of the year, has been hammered as Americans pass up gas-thirsty trucks and SUVs for more fuel-efficient alternatives.

In July, the company was overtaken for the first time by Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. as the nation's No. 2 auto seller. And analysts worry Ford may not have a strong enough vehicle lineup in coming years to fight back.

People with knowledge of the Ford-UAW talks have said the automaker is considering a buyout program that would more closely resemble what was offered at GM and Delphi.

This spring, GM extended cash buyouts up to $140,000 and early retirement packages to all 113,000 of its U.S. factory workers, and will usher out about a quarter of its hourly workforce by year-end.

Ford is offering smaller cash buyouts and early retirement deals only to workers at plants scheduled to close or where the automaker is cutting production.

Through Aug. 1, 3,800 Ford workers had accepted an offer. Ford spokeswoman Evans said the company expects more than 11,000 workers to leave this year under the program. Ford has 87,000 hourly employees.

Some analysts have said Ford will have to offer more money than GM to get workers to leave, in part because Ford has a younger work force and many may be reluctant to leave. The majority of GM workers leaving are near retirement age.

But McAlinden said Ford is not likely to sweeten its offer beyond the level of GM and Delphi. "Ford is not the kind of company that's going to pay more," he said.

Also Tuesday, Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove said the union had proposed a plan to Ford that called for the automaker to keep its St. Thomas, Ontario, plant open and have Canadian auto supplier Magna International Inc. build a low-cost facility to make cars for Ford. The St. Thomas plant makes the Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Marquis large sedans.

As part of its initial "way forward" restructuring plan, Ford said it wants to build a low-cost factory in North America.

"People say, 'If it's low-cost, then Mexico is going to win,' " Hargrove said. "We tried to say there's another way to do business."
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