Images: Ron Gettelfinger
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger helped lead Monday's Labor Day Parade in Detroit. He said upcoming talks with the Big Three would be best handled if issues were kept out of the media.
updated 9/3/2007 3:16:44 PM ET 2007-09-03T19:16:44

Ford Motor Co. has brought a lot of uncertainty into Gerald Williamson's life.

The factory where he works is on a list of plants slated to be sold or even closed, and like other workers, he's had to give up part of his pay raises to help the company fund its huge retiree health care bill.

So when it came time to vote to give union leaders the power to call a strike if contract talks go south, Williamson got some satisfaction last week out of casting his ballot in favor.

"To try to force us to make any more concessions, it's unreasonable and we're willing to shut them down," said Williamson, 55, who works at a plant that makes instrument panels and other parts in Saline, about 40 miles west of Detroit.

Plenty of United Auto Workers members share his thoughts. At his plant, 99 percent approved the strike authorization. Voting nationwide wrapped up last Friday, but the final tally was not announced. Typically, though, strike authorizations are approved overwhelmingly.

With contracts between the union and Ford, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC set to expire Sept. 14, UAW leaders have asked members during the past few weeks to authorize a strike. It's standard procedure and it doesn't mean that a work stoppage will occur.

Williamson, a 13-year Ford worker from Ypsilanti, says he doesn't want a strike and he doesn't think the company wants one either.

But like many workers, he's unhappy that he's had to give up money when new Ford President and Chief Executive Alan Mulally is making millions.

"When you ask people to make concessions and they help out and chip in, then everyone has to make concessions," Williamson said after voting on Wednesday.

Mulally's compensation package was valued at $39.1 million during his four months on the job last year, according to an analysis of a Ford filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Workers at many Detroit-area factories often refer to executive compensation when asked about concessions.

The package also bothers Bill Garner, 54, who voted in favor of a strike. He thinks the salaries of Mulally and other top Ford executives should be cut.

"If they were down more, I don't think it would be near the issue it is now," said Garner of Saline, who has seen only one strike in his 35 years with Ford.

When Mulally was asked last week about criticism of his compensation, he said that leadership counts.

"All the skills required to run a business are market-driven," said Mulally, who was hired away from Boeing Co. last year to rescue the money-losing Ford.

All three Detroit-area automakers are seeking concessions from the UAW as contract talks progress behind closed doors. They point to what they say is around a $25-per-hour labor cost disadvantage to their prime Japanese competitors. A big chunk of that is the multi-billion-dollar long-term retiree health care obligation, which the companies want to unload by paying the UAW a lump sum so it can form a trust to pay the medical bills.

Led by Ford's record $12.6 billion loss last year, the three Detroit automakers lost a collective $15 billion in 2006. Ford had to mortgage its factories to generate enough cash to stay in business.

The losses, brought on by high gas prices sending consumers away from Detroit's trucks and sport utility vehicles, led to restructuring at all three automakers. Thousands of union workers left their companies under buyout or early retirement packages.

As part of that restructuring, Ford last year took the Saline plant and 16 others from its former parts arm, Visteon Corp., and placed it into a holding company for sale or closure.

Workers at Local 892 in Saline don't know if they will have jobs or for whom they'll be working in the future. They also don't know if they'll be part of whatever national contract the UAW negotiates.

Yet in Saline, many of the 1,300 hourly workers have some hope. Ford recently has been moving equipment into the plant to make interior parts for new vehicles, the workers say.

While most workers interviewed after voting last week said they would strike to get what they want, some fear the results.

"I would say this would be the worst time in Ford's history to be on strike," said Darryl Varney, 38, a worker from Belleville.

Some were skeptical of the UAW taking on retiree health care, while others said they needed more details.

Williamson said if Ford gets concessions this year, it will continue to ask for more, so the union should draw a line.

"They would look at that as the way to go," he said. "Obviously they want to drive wages the cheapest."

Dorothy Smith, a UAW Local 572 retiree who sat along the route of a Labor Day parade Monday in Detroit, said she had hoped labor leaders would use the parade to give some word on progress in the talks, but heard nothing.

"We want to compromise, but we want to be able to hold onto what we have," said Smith, 65, who worked in maintenance for 20 years at GM's former headquarters.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said as he left the parade that it provided a public chance to celebrate but not negotiate.

"This is an opportunity to come ztogether as working men and women ... and celebrate what workers have done for the country," he said. "Negotiations are best done if they're handled at the bargaining table, not in the media."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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