UAW workers stiff arm Ford

Just when you figured that the United Auto Workers have been hammered into submission, union workers are flexing their muscles. Ford union workers at 11 plants have voted against concessions made by the UAW’s bargaining committee. Workers at four plants have approved the concessions, which include wage freezes for new hires, a moratorium on strikes over pay and benefits and some work rule changes, Bloomberg reported on its web site. If workers don’t ratify the concessions, then union leaders and Ford management have to hammer out a deal that can pass muster with the rank and file. Either that or Ford gets none of the concessions.

Where to begin with this one? From a public perception standpoint, this is the worst thing the union can do. Across America, workers are losing jobs even as the economy shows signs of life. Few Americans will have sympathy for UAW laborers who have kept their jobs even amid the worst downturn in auto sales in decades. You can’t blame UAW leaders for this one, since they agreed to the concessions. It’s the members who aren’t seeing the writing on the wall.

The new concessions aren’t exactly gut wrenching, either. Ford wants to freeze entry-level workers. That doesn’t affect the voting members and won’t likely hurt anyone new since Ford isn’t hiring. They also want to consolidate some skilled trades classifications, which could weaken job security for the electricians, welders, pipe fitters the like. But the big sticking point looks to be the no-strike clause that would be in place for the 2011 labor contract negotiations. Under the tentative agreement, the union can’t strike over wage and benefits proposals made by the union. But they could if management tries to cut their pay and benefits or over other issues like health and safety concerns. If the UAW and Ford can’t strike a deal, it would go to an arbitrator. Other major unions already do this, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Wait, it gets even more silly. To sweeten the deal, Ford has been willing to give workers a $1,000 bonus upon ratifying the new concessions. The company would also commit to build new products in some UAW plants. So the union could strike over proposed pay cuts in 2011 and they’d get some more cash and job security today.

For both sides, that argument seems to be much ado about nothing. Ford hasn’t had a strike this decade. Neither side is interested in doing that since the union would worry about damaging their healthiest Big Three employer, which is already carrying a big debt load. And Ford wouldn’t want to blow cash on a standoff with labor. In other words, they are fighting over how to manage a very unlikely outcome. That said, asking a union not to strike declaws its negotiators.

My guess: Ford will give in on that one to get the other concessions, which deal with actual compensation and work rules, done and sealed. But given the nature of the concessions and what the workers stand to gain—and not lose—I can’t explain their obstinacy on this one.

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