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Michigan Truck workers say no to contract instituting Japanese-style line work concept

By Mike Hudson / The Detroit News

WAYNE — Workers at Ford Motor Co.’s high-profit Michigan Truck assembly plant rejected for the second time a contract that would have implemented Japanese-style team work rules.

Ford is pushing the concept — in which teams of line workers perform multiple assembly tasks — as part of an effort to save money and become more productive and flexible.

The plant in Wayne builds the full-size Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport-utility vehicles, which once dominated the market but now face stiff competition from rival automakers.

In the late 1990s, the plant was considered the auto industry’s most profitable factory — grossing more than $10 billion a year, a large chunk of it profit. It remains a cash cow today despite the increased competition.

Ford’s determination to obtain more flexible work rules at one of its most profitable truck plants underscores the urgency with which the company is trying to increase efficiency, productivity and profits.

Members of United Auto Workers Local 900 voted down the contract with Ford, even though the union leadership recommended its passage. The sticking point, said line workers and union officials, was Ford’s attempt to impose new work rules.

Ford and Local 900 will continue negotiations and no strike vote has been scheduled.

A similar pact was previously approved by workers at Ford’s nearby plant that builds the Focus small car. Ford’s nearby stamping plant in Wayne also has implemented team rules.

“The workers in the truck plant just don’t seem to want it,” Local 900 President Jeff Washington said. “These are people’s livelihoods at stake, so its important to them how this all turns out.”

To some workers, team concepts unravel clearly delineated work rules earned over decades of negotiations. They also blows up a pecking order where veteran employees receive first choice of assignment while newcomers pay their dues in more strenuous jobs.

In previous contracts, the plant’s 3,400 workers have negotiated favorable work rules because Ford dared not risk a work stoppage at Michigan Truck. But after years of declining market share, Ford is taking a harder line.

“The Japanese are well-ahead of the Big Three in terms of productivity initiatives forcing the domestic (automakers) to work to catch up,” said Erich Merkle, auto analyst at IRN Inc., a consultancy in Grand Rapids. “They’re competing with plants here in the South, where you don’t have that old-line mentality of wanting to stick with the traditional way of doing things.”

Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari declined comment.

The UAW and Detroit automakers made productivity gains a top priority during contract negotiations last year. The union agreed to explore more flexible work rules on the plant floor in exchange for protecting its health care and wage benefits.

Working in production teams, workers perform multiple tasks in small groups of 10. The practice, common in Japanese plants, can save manufacturers millions of dollars by reducing the amount of time it takes to make vehicles.

While each of the Big Three are pushing for such changes, General Motors Corp. has been the most successful in broadly implementing the strategy, said Sean McAlinden, auto labor analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

At GM’s Cadillac plant in Hamtramck, for example, the number of hours to make a vehicle dropped from 43 to 25 after a so-called modern agreement was adopted, McAlinden said.

“Ford and Chrysler know GM is ahead on this and is going to make even more progress this year, getting close to Toyota’s level of productivity,” McAlinden said. “We’re talking about saving $800 to $1,000 per vehicle and that means GM can just keep running these incentive programs forever.”

Workers at Michigan Truck don’t seem willing to cooperate, however, shooting down such changes once late last year and again this week.

The plant appears to be split among seniority lines.

Younger workers, such as 10-year veteran Tayo Farley, like the idea of the new production process because it will improve the plant’s chances of getting new products.

“If it saves jobs, then I’m for it,” Farley said.

But several older workers at the plant interviewed after voting this week fervently oppose the measure. They say they have earned their job titles over decades of service. The team process also would force them to learn new jobs and potentially do the work of less-seasoned workers.

Many said they just simply didn’t understand what the new rules entailed, saying local union leaders didn’t inform workers what the changes would mean.

“I don’t think they did a good job of communicating what was in the agreement,” said Local 900 member Robert Burrell. “That’s why it failed the first time around.”

Ford and the UAW are expected to redraft the proposal and hold another vote.

“There’s a lot more competition out there for the Expedition than there was in the late 1990s, so the plant has to become more efficient,” McAlinden said. “Local 900 is a very smart local and the leadership seems to understand what direction they need to go, but a lot of workers have been in the traditional system for 20 years and don’t want to change.”

About Michigan Truck
Location: Wayne
Products: Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator
Hourly employees: 3,402
Salary employees: 202
Year opened: 1964
2002 output: 193,083 units
Plant size: 2,866,000 square feet 2003 output: 242,015 units
Note: 850 employees on indefinite layoff since end of 2001 Sources: Ford, Ward's

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