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Ford seeks pole position in UAW negotiations

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

In the wake of abrupt retirements of top labor negotiators at its crosstown rivals, Ford Motor Co. is touting its cohesiveness and expressing desire to be the first automaker to start contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers when talks formally begin next month.

“We have pretty stable leadership on both the UAW and Ford side, and we feel ready,” said Bill Dirksen, Ford’s vice president of labor affairs. “I think most companies most years prefer to be the lead, and we don’t see it any differently. We’ll stick to our plan and ultimately the UAW will gravitate to one company for the first agreement.”

The lead role would allow Ford, General Motors Co. or Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV the ability to shape the next four-year contract to best suit their competitive circumstances — and potentially disadvantage competitors.

“There is usually an advantage to going first,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the industry and labor group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

FCA said Tuesday that its North American labor relations chief, Alphons Iacobelli, 55, elected to retire, effective immediately; GM confirmed to The Detroit News the same day that its top bargainer, Rex Blackwell, 60, quietly retired June 1.

Ford may have the advantage in leading the talks because of stability in the upper reaches of management — from Executive Chairman Bill Ford and CEO Mark Fields, to Dirksen and Ford of the Americas chief Joe Hinrichs. And it has established relationships with Jimmy Settles, the most experienced UAW vice president.

“The way you think about the strategy, (the lead company) could be the place that has the most well-developed relationships,” Dziczek said. “Bill and Jimmy go back years and years. If you have a good relationship, you have a chance to get a good agreement.”

Although there have been cases of concurrent bargaining, the UAW often picks one automaker to lead negotiations, and the talks with the other two would be framed by what was decided with the first. The companies bargained concurrently in 2011, but GM settled its contract with the UAW first that year. The UAW on Monday had no comment on whether it plans to pick a lead company with which to negotiate.

Settles, the UAW’s Ford rep, said he’s bidding to negotiate first after the two sides shake hands July 23 at Cass Tech High School. Settles said GM and FCA will hold handshake events June 13 and 14; GM would not confirm its date.

“Everybody wants to be first,” Settles said. “I like leading; I don’t like following.”

The handshakes are a formality, Dziczek said, and have no impact on who leads negotiations. That likely won’t be determined until around Labor Day.

Ford, whose senior thesis at Princeton University was on labor negotiations, said he’s less concerned with going first. “Sometimes it really pays to be (first), other times it doesn’t,” he said. “I’m not really losing a lot of sleep over it.”

Dziczek noted that in 2009 the Dearborn-based automaker was the first to the bargaining table and ratified a contract, only to see GM and Chrysler get more favorable deals.

This time, the UAW will be pushing to “bridge the gap” between the pay of first-tier and second-tier workers, which favors more tenured employees. The automakers will try to keep labor costs down to remain competitive with foreign rivals. Health care costs and profit sharing will be among other key issues.

“We have to negotiate smart,” Settles said. “We can’t negotiate to put the company out of business, nor do we want to go through the experiences where we have plants closing.”

One factor that could make Ford the favorite to lead talks, Dziczek said, is the automaker’s cap on two-tier workers. Caps at both GM and FCA were suspended in 2009 as part of the automakers’ bankruptcy reorganizations.

Under the current contract with the UAW, Ford is allowed to hire 20 percent of its workforce at a lower, second-tier wage, excluding some workers at certain plants whose jobs were created by moving work in-house from other companies. It surpassed that cap earlier this year, and has had to move hundreds of workers to a higher level of pay. The UAW is likely to try to retain the cap with Ford, and return it at GM and FCA.

“Going with Ford with a cap already in place would be less of a battle,” Dziczek said.

Bill Ford wouldn’t comment on what the Dearborn automaker’s focus would be, but said he hopes the talks go smoothly.

“We have a great relationship with the UAW,” he said. “When you get to the negotiations there should be no surprises because if you’ve done your job correctly, building relationships, sharing information, then when you get to the actual bargaining table, both sides know where the other side stands.”

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