Ford vote shows disconnect between UAW leaders, workers

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

A tentative deal between Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers that stands on the brink of rejection continues a pattern of contentiousness in the contract talks between the rank-and-file and their elected union leaders.

United Auto Workers-Ford Vice President Jimmy Settles touted the merits of a labor contract that is the richest of the Detroit automakers, but whose ratification is becoming increasingly in doubt.

With three-quarters of votes recorded, a 52 percent majority of UAW workers at Ford so far have voted against the deal, despite significant raises for all workers and $9 billion in plant investments — more than at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and General Motors Co. combined.

The unexpectedly close Ford vote prompted the union Wednesday to call an unusual press conference, at which UAW-Ford Vice President Jimmy Settles and Local 600 President Bernie Ricke emphasized the current tentative agreement includes significant gains, and that workers are unlikely to get a better deal if this one fails.

The press conference didn't have the desired result at Local 551, representing about 4,000 workers at Chicago Assembly. A 68 percent majority voted against the deal in voting that ended Wednesday night, hours after the UAW-Ford press conference ended. Thursday morning, though, Local 3000, representing 3,000 workers at Flat Rock Assembly, passed the deal by a slim 51 percent margin.

The trouble at Ford follows the sound rejection of a first agreement at Fiat Chrysler. At GM, disgruntled skilled trades workers have stalled ratification of their deal.

While there has been no strike, the trouble in passing the three deals — which all included plant investments and substantial raises for all workers — speaks to a disconnect between union members and their elected officers.

High expectations by workers and negative social media reaction have exposed the distance between a union leadership that has been mindful of the global market in which Detroit automakers operate, and rank-and-file members who haven’t been so quick to follow.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Settles said if the contract is rejected, Ford’s $9 billion promised investment would be in jeopardy. So, too, could the survival of parts plants that the union was able to keep open in this round of talks.

“The irony of negotiations is when you go back to the table, everything’s off the table,” he said. “You’re negotiating all new again. Some people think you just go open Door Number Two and see if something’s behind there. That’s not how real negotiations go.”

Ricke echoed Settles’ comments, saying it’s not likely Ford workers would get a better deal if this one is voted down.

“If we thought there was another dollar on the table, we would have got it in the first one,” Ricke said. “There’s a lot of money in investment, there’s a lot of money in wages and bonuses, and another key thing was the health care ... we made some enhancements. There’s really a balance in the money in the agreement.”

Settles told reporters, “We’re optimistic. It looks dark now, but it might be light in the morning.”

Passage or defeat of the contract will come down to the 8,200 workers represented by UAW Local 600. The local includes 4,300 union members at Dearborn Truck, which makes the F-150 pickup. The plant is scheduled to get $250 million in new investments and the addition of the new Raptor truck over the course of the four-year deal. The entire Rouge site, which includes smaller engine and powertrain plants, is set to get $415 million in investments and 400 new jobs.

Voting at Local 600 continues through Friday. The local alone has hosted 14 informational meetings to ease members’ concerns, but Settles admitted there’s growing discontent among many workers.

“I think it’s just frustration, period,” Settles said. “All across America there’s low wages, people just need to make more money. It’s not just autoworkers, it’s everywhere you go, but we’re fortunate autoworkers have a way to respond.”

Ricke told reporters, “I’m confident our membership, when informed properly and when they get the facts, will support this agreement.”

Some workers have expressed concern over the deal’s eight-year progression for workers to earn a top wage; they believe it should be shorter. There’s also been anger over a lower wage scale for parts workers, a $1,500 advance on profit sharing and the company’s use of temporary workers.

Hisham Beydoun, 48, of Dearborn, said Tuesday that while the tentative agreement doesn’t give veteran workers back all of their concessions from the recession, he supports the deal.

“I like it. It’s the best we can get out of 12 years of having to get nothing,” said the 26-year union veteran outside of Local 600 in Dearborn. “For a legacy worker like me, I got paid $28 an hour for 12 years. I didn’t see a penny. So, for me, this is something.

“Yeah, I would have liked to have seen more. Did I get everything back? No.”

Art Wheaton, a labor expert at Cornell University, said, “It’s really hard to manage the expectations of your membership. It’s even harder to control social media. It really blew up on them at Fiat-Chrysler.

“I thought Ford had taken the steps to do it the smart way, but even that didn’t seem to satisfy people.”

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