February 26, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Ford cuts a painful deal

UAW members will be asked to give up benefits in order to preserve wages and health care.

Factory workers at Ford Motor Co. seem ready to ratify a tentative agreement between the struggling automaker and the United Auto Workers, if only because they see the alternative as too frightening to contemplate.

Union members began getting details of the proposed amendment to their 2007 labor contract Wednesday, after UAW leaders voted unanimously to recommend ratification Tuesday.

The new deal preserves wages and health benefits, but eliminates hundreds of dollars in bonuses and cost-of-living adjustments, ends the jobs bank program, changes work rules and allows Ford to pay up to half its contributions to a union-run retiree health care trust with company stock.

"The UAW has made painful decisions with a clear goal: preserving jobs with as much security as possible," said labor expert Harley Shaiken of the University of California, Berkeley. "This is a defining moment for the industry and the union."

Most UAW members get that and are willing to vote for the changes, said Richard Linz, who works at Ford's Ohio Assembly Plant in Avon Lake.

"We feel like we're over a barrel," he said. "I want to retire from Ford. I don't even know if that's possible anymore. I want to keep working. I want to keep my job."

Though Ford's Avon Lake factory has been temporarily idled, Linz said workers have been calling each other to discuss the details of the agreement that have appeared in the press.

Linz said the announcement by Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. and CEO Alan Mulally that they will cut their own pay 30 percent makes it a little easier to accept the cuts he and other union members are being asked to make.

"What they're saying is, 'we all have to make sacrifices,' " Linz said.

Workers will begin voting on the agreement as early as this weekend.

Brian Pannebecker, who works at Ford's axle plant in Sterling Heights, said his local will begin voting on Saturday.

"The good news is that our base pay and medical benefits are not being touched, but we are taking some hits," he said, noting that the elimination of the $600 Christmas bonus will be a real Grinch.Retirees also are watching developments closely.

"My biggest concern is the VEBA," said Gerald Borsenik, referring to the Voluntary Employees' Beneficiary Association, the union-run retiree health care trust. "Of course, we don't get to vote."

He said that is a sore point with many retired workers, since it is their benefits that are at stake.

The UAW has said it wants all voting on the proposed agreement to be completed by March 9.

You can reach Bryce Hoffman at (313) 222-2443 or bhoffman@detnews.com">bhoffman@detnews.com.