Grassroots pressure is mounting for a recount of a critical vote that ratified changes in the United Auto Workers' labor pacts with struggling automakers Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp.
Several union members employed by Ford said last week they intend to ask the union to release the detailed results of the recent vote, in which the contract passed by a narrow 51 percent to 49 percent margin.
United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger (L) and UAW Vice-President of UAW Ford Department Gerald Bantum listen to a question from the media during a news conference in Detroit, Michigan December 14, 2005. Gettelfinger announced they expect to complete ratification of a tentative deal with Ford Motor Co. to help cut the auto makers health care costs. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
The spillover from the controversy at Ford also could raise questions about the changes to contract changes that are scheduled to alter health-care benefits for blue-collar workers and retirees at General Motors in 2006.
Disgruntled workers are also planning to circulate a petition inside Ford plants calling on the union to submit the contract changes to a second vote, said Steve Fisher, a Ford employee from Sandusky, Ohio, who is currently serving as a spokesman for the workers critical of the contract vote.
"Ideally, we'd like a revote," Fisher said. "The numbers just don't add up."
Fisher noted that even partial returns from Ford plants show the contract changes being rejected by wide margins in places such as Louisville, Kentucky, and the truck assembly plant in Ford's historic Rouge Manufacturing Complex in Detroit.
Ron Lare, a union activist from UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, Michigan, said he had noted little security around the ballot boxes used in the ratification vote, which was held just before Christmas, December 25.
Fisher said the protests were just getting started and dissatisfied union members had not yet settled on a strategy. Another possibility would be joining a lawsuit filed by disgruntled union members who asked a federal court in Detroit to set aside the UAW's agreement that trimmed the health care benefits of GM workers.
If protesting Ford workers uncover any evidence of collusion with management or ballot-box stuffing, that could bolster objections of GM retirees who have argued the union did not have the right to negotiate away the benefits of retired workers, Fisher said.
Paul Krell, a UAW spokesman, declined to comment Friday on the protest, noting he had not had an opportunity to review the complaints.
However, Ellis Boal, a Charlevoix, Michigan, attorney who provided legal advice to a variety of UAW dissidents, confirmed that he has been asked to advise disgruntled union members employed by both Ford and GM.
"I haven't been retained by anybody, yet, but I expect to be," he said.
Boal also said he plans to argue that the union's own internal election guidelines automatically call for recounts in any election for officers where the winning margin is 51 percent or less. The same principle should apply in ratification votes, Boal said.
Union dissidents also have challenged bankrupt auto parts supplier Delphi Corp's demands for sweeping cuts in wages and benefits.
Both GM and Ford are under intense pressure to cut costs because of falling market shares and mounting financial losses. GM has lost more than four billion dollars in the first three quarters of 2005 and Ford's automotive operations lost more than one billion dollars as the automakers used costly incentives to prop up sales in the face of declining market share.
The financial problems at both companies has been exacerbated by a decline in the sales of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles as gasoline (petrol) prices have risen.
Fisher said he realizes that, given today's climate, the union has to make some concessions, including giving up part of cost-of-living raises and a one-dollar per hour pay increase scheduled for next September.
However, there is concern about a plan to shift the retiree health-care costs to a trust outside the existing health-care system in place at Ford. Trusts have been used by the UAW at Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel, and they have gone broke.
"This one is designed to fail in seven to 10 years. Then what will be left?" Fisher said.
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