DETROIT – The United Auto Workers union said early Saturday it reached a tentative four-year contract agreement with Ford Motor Co., avoiding even the threat of a strike against the struggling automaker.
The deal, reached around 3:20 a.m., must be ratified by the UAW's approximately 60,000 members at Ford. If approved, it would bring a close to historic negotiations that have yielded agreements designed to return U.S.-based automakers to profitability.
Details of the Ford agreement were not immediately released, but the deal likely will be close to what was negotiated with General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC.
Those pacts — which were reached after short strikes against the automakers — include a union-run trust that would take over the companies' retiree health care obligations, a lower-tier wage scale for some workers and some job security pledges.
The Ford deal came after a bargaining session that lasted more than 41 hours inside the automaker's world headquarters building in Dearborn.
"Our bargaining committee came through for our active and retired members," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in a statement.
The deal encourages Ford to invest in its products while addressing the economic needs of union members, Gettelfinger's statement said.
"We face enormous challenges — and we also have enormous potential," UAW Vice President Bob King said in the statement. King, the chief union negotiator with Ford, said the union's goals were to win new product and investment from the company, get job security and protect seniority rights.
"We made progress in all these areas," he said.
People who had been briefed on the bargaining late Friday said that throughout the lengthy negotiating session, bargainers were weighing the UAW's demand for promises that new vehicles will be built at U.S. factories against the company's desire to further downsize its manufacturing capacity to match lower demand for its products.
The people did not want to be identified because the talks are private.
One of the people said Ford wanted to reduce its U.S. hourly work force by another 13,000 employees through additional buyout and early retirement programs. The union wanted the company to spare from closure some of the six factories that it intends to shutter, both people said.
Ford already has announced its intent to shut down 16 factories as part of a restructuring plan. The company has identified 10 of the closures, but has yet to announce the remaining six. The closures are to be fully completed by 2012.
If more workers leave, some of them could be replaced by so-called "noncore" employees who would be paid on a lower wage scale, starting around $14 per hour. An average Ford hourly worker made $28.88 per hour in 2006, according to the company. The change would help make Ford more competitive with its Japanese rivals that have U.S. factories.
Going into this year's contract talks, U.S.-based automakers said they had about a $25-per-hour total labor cost gap when compared with the Japanese.
Negotiators also were haggling over the level of financing for a union-run trust that would take over Ford's retiree health care obligations and the number of workers who will get the lower wages. The UAW agreed to the health care trusts and the lower wages in contracts that were already approved at General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC.
The UAW called short strikes against GM and Chrysler as a way to speed negotiations.
Ford's four-year contract with the UAW expired Sept. 14 but had been extended while negotiations continued.
Depending on its features, the contract may face a tough ratification vote at Ford because of Chrysler's actions on Thursday to cut 8,500 to 10,000 hourly jobs and 2,100 salaried jobs through 2008, or about 15 percent of its work force.
Thursday's layoffs came less than a week after Chrysler workers ratified a new four-year deal with the company that had job security guarantees at many plants at least for the life of the contract.
Under the new Chrysler contract, workers will get about 95 percent of their pretax pay for 48 weeks, then would go into a "jobs bank" for up to two years if there are no jobs open in the company. After the two years, the UAW and Chrysler would negotiate a plan for workers, a summary of the contract says.
But Gary Walkowicz, a worker and former local union official at a Ford truck plant in Dearborn, said talk on the assembly line Thursday was that workers at Chrysler and GM were deceived by job security pledges.
"It's pretty clear that both at General Motors and Chrysler, the workers were lied to," Walkowicz said. "They were promised job security. The ink wasn't dry on the contract and they're turning around and making layoffs."
In October, GM announced layoffs of more than 1,700 people at three plants in the Pontiac, Detroit and Lansing areas.
Walkowicz said on Friday that workers on the line will be wary of whatever might come out of the negotiations with Ford.
"I think they're going to be skeptical of any job security in the Ford contract," he said.
GM spokesman Tom Wickham said his company's job cuts were planned well in advance of the contract and were based on demand for products, and Chrysler officials also said their decisions were based on declining market conditions for some vehicles.
Ford is financially the weakest of the Detroit Three automakers, having lost more than $12 billion last year. The company has mortgaged its assets — including its blue oval logo — to fund turnaround efforts.
Ford is expected to announce next week that more than 30,000 hourly workers have taken previous early retirement or buyout offers to leave the company.