UAW workers at Ford’s Chicago factory reject national deal

CHICAGO — Union workers at Ford’s assembly plant on the far South Side of Chicago have emphatically voted to reject a national contract that was described as the richest in the automaker’s history, dealing a serious blow to Ford’s hopes of ratifying the deal nationwide.

Production workers with United Auto Workers Local 551 at the plant — Ford’s longest continuously running plant in the world — voted 67 percent against the deal that would have seen them paid $10,000 in bonuses and profit sharing this year alone. And 78 percent of skilled tradesman at the plant voted against it.

Even before the approximately 4,000 workers in Chicago got the chance to vote, slightly more than half of the 28,000 who had already voted at other plants around the country had rejected the deal. Ford needs a majority of those who vote among its 52,900 union workers for it to be ratified.

Anger over concessions that longer-standing UAW members were forced to make during the Great Recession, and the high percentage of younger workers who have been hired with lower wages appeared to be behind the Chicago plant’s “no” vote. Workers commenting on the Local 551 Facebook page urged colleagues not to “sell out” to management, who they say have not gone far enough to make workers whole for what they’ve given up over the last nine years. Some wrote that they were ready to go on strike.

UAW Local 551 Vice President Scott Houldieson noted that Ford has added two shifts to the Chicago plant since 2010, meaning the plant has “a rather young workforce” compared to some other plants that have backed the deal. But, he said, “There are a lot of longer-term employees that made sacrifices since 2006, so nobody really loved the deal.”

Most workers saw the offer of a one-off $8,500 payment as a bribe, Houldieson said. “That’s one time and it goes away,” he said. “Wage increases are what built the middle class in this country.”

Concerns that the deal will be rejected nationwide prompted UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles to warn rank-and-file members Wednesday before the Chicago result was announced, “When you go back to the table, everything is off the table. So you are negotiating everything all over again.”

Settles said he was “optimistic” that it would ultimately be ratified once workers at all of Ford’s plants across the nation have voted. “It looks dark now, but it might be light in the morning,” he said.

But his unusual decision to give a news conference while members are still voting demonstrated how rattled the union’s leadership has become. Rank-and-file UAW members employed by Fiat Chrysler rejected a national contract earlier this fall.

Most of the earliest voting Ford factories — including a smaller body panel plant in the Chicago suburb of Chicago Heights — had voted in favor of the deal last week. But after workers at the Kansas City, Mo., plant and the Louisville, Ky., plant rejected the deal, Chicago’s vote was being closely watched.

Ford has promised to invest $900 million in the Chicago plant and to add 200 union jobs there if the deal is ratified. It would also invest $200 million at Chicago Heights under the terms of the deal, which would see $9 billion invested nationwide.

The proposed four-year contract also includes two 3 percent raises, as well as $1,500 inflation payments and bonuses and profit-sharing payments this year that add up to $10,250 this year alone for permanent employees. Those are the first across-the-board raises since the Great Recession. The deal would work toward eliminating the “two-tier” workforce, under which new employees could not hope to match the wages of long-term employees.

Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research, said she expects the ratification vote to fail, given that the UAW locals that have yet to vote include those with strong dissident factions.

She said workers are right to believe “that if they can’t get their concessions back now, after five years of profits and at the top of the economic cycle, they’ll never get them back.”

But, Dziczek said, “They’re probably not going to get them back, whatever happens.” The shadow of the last recession still hangs over automakers, who can relocate to Mexico, which not only has lower wages but also trade deals with Europe, Asia and South America that make it more attractive as a base for exports, she said.

While the Chicago plant’s status as a producer of full-size Explorer SUVs and Taurus sedans for the U.S. market protects it from that threat, any decision to move the production of Focus compacts or other small cars overseas from other U.S. plants would further weaken the union, Dziczek said.

“If Ford can put $9 billion in the U.S., it can put $9 billion in Mexico,” she said. Any renegotiated deal will likely simply “move around” the various sums offered to different union workers, without changing the overall value to the union, Dziczek added.

In the meantime, the Chicago plant will be hurt if gas prices increase, making its large vehicles less attractive, she said. And it is at further risk if the attempt to re-establish the Lincoln brand fails, Dziczek added.

Union leadership had tried to balance their demands for higher wages with investment guarantees that protected their power to negotiate future contracts, she said, but fed-up workers “just want the wages, now.”

Her comments echoed those of UAW Local 600 President Bernie Ricke, who represents workers at several Michigan plants. Ricke said at Wednesday’s news conference that 16,000 Ford workers voting this year have never been through a contract negotiation process before. But, “if we thought there was another dollar on the table we would have got it in the first agreement,” he said.

And Settles said, “We hired a lot of people in a very short period of time, and for many of them this is their first job. And they don’t understand the process, so we try to do the best we possibly can to educate them on the process.”

He added, “A lot of people, especially younger people, think you just go and open door No. 2 and see if something is behind door No. 2. That is not how real negotiations go.”

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune

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