Ford Workers Should Be Applauded, Not Ridiculed

Editor’s note: Ford workers rejected a proposed concessions package last week that included a six-year wage freeze for new hires (who make half of current workers’ pay), combining of skilled trades, and giving up the right to strike for contract improvements. Ford had made some weak assurances of continued work and offered a $1,000 bonus.

The United Auto Workers announced the vote as 70 percent 'no' among production workers and 75 percent 'no' in skilled trades. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger’s home local in Louisville, Kentucky, voted no by 84 percent. The Dearborn Truck unit, whose president broke with International officials to urge a ‘no’ vote, rejected by 92.5 percent.

The pre-vote period was characterized by rank-and-filers producing leaflets that they distributed in the plants, and at least one raucous meeting in which UAW VP Bob King was shouted down.

UAW officials said they would not bring the concessions package back for a re-vote but would wait until the contract expires in fall 2011 to negotiate again.

To read how the Detroit newspapers tell it, you would think that union members dealt a death blow to Ford Motor Company when UAW-Ford workers voted overwhelmingly against another round of concessions to their 2007 contract. Rather than place blame for a corporate failure that may not occur, news media should applaud union members for doing something they have not done in over 30 years – vote against the wishes of their top union leaders.

While published reports have said that Ford will have a large, business-threatening debt load in 2011, workers in 2009, eight months after giving concessions at their leadership’s request, do not see the urgency to give more to Ford, especially since Ford reported financial gains in the second quarter, and—right after the vote—announced a $1 billion profit for the third quarter.

Concessions were double-edged idea

The drive to ask the membership for concessions was likely a double-edged idea from Ford management and UAW leaders, long known for their labor-management harmony. Management, seeking to reduce the predicted debt load and reach competitive equality with General Motors and Chrysler, whose workers were forced to give concessions due to the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy filings, thought workers would be understanding of their needs and voluntarily give up more from their contract, even while seeing increased sales and profits since voting to help the company with previous concessions.

The UAW sought to maintain pattern bargaining, a staple of the union since Walter Reuther’s days as president. Pattern bargaining, done by the UAW for over 60 years, was always a tool to bring the workers in the weakest bargaining position to equality with workers in the strongest bargaining position. This is the first time that pattern bargaining has been attempted to bring the strongest company down to achieve the pattern with the poorer companies.

With the GM and Chrysler concessions last May, Ford workers stood ahead of their brethren in many areas, including entry worker pay, job classifications, and work rules. Instead of waiting out the contract, the UAW chose to bring the Ford workers in line with GM and Chrysler workers now, at a time when Ford has been selling the government, the media, the public, and Wall Street on the idea that their business plan, management team, and labor relations are the best of the three U.S. auto companies.

No clear explanation

Ford workers said throughout the process that they had given back enough and did not see the necessity in giving the company more from their contract while increased sales and profits were being announced. They certainly do not feel that they have to endure the same pain that GM and Chrysler workers were forced to endure by the U.S. government. Yet the International UAW kept insisting that the concessions were necessary, without clearly explaining the financial situation that Ford may find themselves in in two years.

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Attempts were made by Ford management to tell workers how bad the business situation might be in two years. Executives were sent to plants around the country to give slide show presentations and give gloom-and-doom speeches. After the tentative agreement was reached, UAW-Ford negotiators traversed the same path across the country to explain the concessionary agreement to a confused membership. The necessity to give concessions to a company announcing profits certainly confused many union members, and is something that UAW members have not seen before.

Several employees, not wanting to risk the future of their plant, voted for the concessions. Several plants were promised product if the agreement passed, while others would be considered for product. Giving up the right to strike and freezing wages for new hires for six years, not just the remainder of the current contract, was not a concern to those that voted for the agreement.

Workers change course

Unconvinced of Ford’s impending 2011 failure and tired of being asked to foot the bill for management’s business failures, UAW members at Ford chose not to stand by but to be an active participant in the labor relations process. Management, with the UAW’s buy-in, was able to present a good business case for concessions just a few months previously. They have not done so in this instance.

In the past, workers went for the money. This time, despite a $1000 bonus offered if the agreement passed, workers declined the money and instead stood up for what they believed was right. The years of being told they had to sacrifice again and again had finally taken a toll.

Some reporters and bloggers have said that UAW members cannot see the big picture, and undoubtedly Ford management and UAW leadership feel the same way, but asking for concessions while telling the world of your profitability simply isn’t smart.

Shop floor a forgotten place

While UAW members get ridiculed for making too much money, having too good a benefit package, and apparently not understanding big business, the know-it-all commentators and those negotiating concession packages have either forgotten, or know nothing about, the shop floor and working conditions auto workers perform under.

Today’s auto factories are nothing like the factories of decades ago, but the culture and environment inside the auto factories is still highly stressful. The much-talked-about relationship between Ford management and the UAW has not rolled down to the shop floor. In the real Ford plant world, employees have to deal with supervisors that care more about the numbers of product being produced than how it is being done, and management that seemingly cares more about climbing the next rung on the corporate ladder than managing effectively.

These realities, coupled with a selection process that discourages the best candidates from getting involved in union leadership, has led to a chaotic environment that places workers in a survival mode where every day brings new challenges, new drama, non-stop politics, and few escapes from the pressure that workers constantly find themselves under. Fixing the way business is conducted inside plant locations would go a long way toward fixing the mindset of the workforce where harmonious labor relations, spoken so highly of at the corporate level, are just a fantasy.

Workers have been beaten down by the media, the general public, and their own union and company leadership for so long, it should not have been a surprise to anyone that the concessions agreement was voted down. Those that were surprised simply are out of touch with the reality of worklife inside an auto plant. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new workers revolution, one that will gain the respect of those that negotiate on their behalf and redefine the direction of the UAW.

[Norm Kujawa was editor of the UAW Local 3000 Guide for 17 years. Local 3000 represents workers at AutoAlliance, the Mazda-Ford joint venture in Flat Rock, Michigan.]