With contract approval at Chrysler, the United Auto Workers is shifting gears to Ford, the third company with which it needs to hammer out a new contract.

Workers at Chrysler’s Belvidere, Ill., plant were the last to vote on the contract Oct. 26 and they rejected it, despite Chrysler’s $3,000 lump-sum bribe to each of its 600 “enhanced temporary workers.” Nationwide, the contract was approved 53-47 percent, but only after a major lobbying effort that saw union executive board members rush, at the last minute, to plants where the workers had not yet voted.

The Chrysler contract ratification process was much more difficult than the one at GM, where two-thirds of the members who voted approved it after a two-day strike.

Chrysler workers first went on strike for six hours. When local union leaders met after the strike, they were split over the contract agreement. At first, the deal was rejected by four large auto assembly plants and received support only from small factories. After an extraordinary lobbying effort by union leaders, four big plants in the Detroit area approved the pact.

Opponents voted against the contract for a variety of reasons, including the introduction of a two-tier wage system, the off-loading of responsibility for retiree health care by the company onto the lap of the union, and lack of future job guarantees. Many longtime observers of the labor movement believe that as a result of the new contracts at GM and Chrysler, the union will have to struggle to rebuild itself all over again.

The same issues, particularly the guarantees for future work, are now up front in the negotiations with Ford.

The company is crying poverty, claiming it lost $12.6 billion last year and that it does not expect to earn a profit in the United States until 2009. Ford does not have to include billions in overseas profits in its accounting reports. The company is not talking about billions it is investing in plants in eastern Europe.

Another difficult issue workers have to deal with is Ford’s “Way Forward” plan. It is a restructuring plan that will involve closings at plants whose identity has not yet been revealed. The union will push for the disclosure of these plans and the company will resist. Workers at Chrysler plants in Missouri rejected their contract precisely because they knew Chrysler had no long-term plans to invest in their plants.

Workers want assurances before they will vote in favor of a contract, and they know that even such assurances can come to nothing. Just weeks after approval of the GM contract, the company has already announced plans to eliminate shifts at two Michigan factories where no cuts were supposed to have been made.

Like their counterparts at GM and Chrysler, Ford workers are particularly unhappy about the two-tier wage system. They see it is a sellout of the young workers and a blow to the next generations of autoworkers.

jwojcik @pww.org