DETROIT (AP) – Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers reached a tentative contract Saturday without the strikes and public ill will that marked negotiations with General Motors Corp. and Chrysler this fall.

Ford employees might not sign off on the deal so easily, however, having watched their GM and Chrysler counterparts get hit with layoffs and cutbacks after agreeing to their new contracts.

“If it’s a similar agreement negotiated at GM and Chrysler, then it’s terrible for the workers and the future,” said Gary Walkowicz, a worker and former local union official at a truck plant in Dearborn, where Ford’s headquarters is located.

The ink was barely dry on the UAW’s contracts with GM and Chrysler when the two automakers announced they would eliminate shifts at assembly plants and lay off workers. Chrysler said last week it will cut between 8,500 and 10,000 hourly jobs through 2008. Last month, GM said it would cut shifts at three Michigan plants, affecting 1,700 jobs.

The agreements with GM and Chrysler contain pledges for future work and investment at U.S. plants but no promises on staffing levels, and the companies are allowed to adjust staffing to meet demand for vehicles. Ford workers are now less inclined to believe that the pledges will protect jobs, Walkowicz said.

“I think there is a certain amount of skepticism,” he said. “The other contracts had this supposed job security, which of course wasn’t there, and as soon as the contract is signed they turn around and announce major layoffs.”

If a majority of Ford hourly workers voting approve the contract, it would end four months of intense negotiations and put in place three historic contracts that slash wages and change the way health care is provided to retirees. The UAW represents approximately 54,000 Ford workers.

Ford’s tentative four-year contract was reached around 3:20 a.m. EDT Saturday. The UAW held short strikes against GM and Chrysler before reaching agreements with those automakers, but there was no threat of a strike at Ford.

Details of the agreement were not immediately released, but a person briefed on the deal said Ford scaled back plans to close some U.S. plants and promised significant product investments to ensure those plants will remain open for now. In exchange, the agreement allows Ford to pay lower wages to thousands of new hires, a provision already agreed to in contracts with GM and Chrysler. The person requested anonymity because the union hadn’t released details.

Ford also said the deal allows it to move its estimated $22 billion in retiree health care obligations to a union-run trust. The company didn’t say how much it will have to contribute to the trust. GM and Chrysler have similar agreements in their contracts.

“Though we will not discuss the specifics of the tentative agreement until after it becomes final, we believe it is fair to our employees and retirees, and paves the way for Ford to increase its competitiveness in the United States,” Joe Laymon, Ford’s group vice president for human resources and labor affairs, said in a statement.

Ford already had announced its intent to shut down 16 North American factories as part of a restructuring. The company has identified 10 of the closures, but has yet to announce the remaining six. At least some of those six are now slated to get new investment and avoid closure.

Phil McKinnon, a welder who works at the Michigan Truck plant in Wayne, said Ford withheld the names of the six plants so they could use them as a bargaining tool.

“I think that’s just part of the game they played. It’s politics, pitting one plant against another,” he said. “It’s scare tactics. I’ve been here 35 years, so I’ve seen enough of it to know what’s going on.”

McKinnon said he and his co-workers also are skeptical of the contract. His main concern is whether the contract will allow new work rules that let other trades do welding work. GM and Chrysler have such changes in their contracts, he said.

One person briefed on the negotiations said Ford was expected to try to reduce its U.S. hourly work force by 13,000 employees through buyout and early retirement programs, but it wasn’t clear if that plan was part of the contract. That person requested anonymity because the talks were confidential.

GM and Chrysler included buyouts in their agreements. Ford is expected to announce next week that more than 30,000 hourly workers have taken previous buyout offers.

If more workers leave, some 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 Asian rivals that have U.S. factories.

Walkowicz said workers are upset about the new wage structure.

“A lot of people are talking about the two-tier wages, saying they’re not only for the new workers because eventually they’ll bring down ours, too,” he said.

Ford was expected to ask the UAW for more help than it gave GM and Chrysler because it’s the weakest of the Detroit Three automakers. Ford lost more than $12 billion last year and has mortgaged its assets – including its blue oval logo – to fund turnaround efforts. It is rapidly losing U.S. market share, from 26 percent in the early 1990s to about 15 percent this year, and is using less than 80 percent of its U.S. plant capacity.

Erich Merkle, vice president of auto industry forecasting for the consulting firm IRN Inc., said the amount Ford must contribute to the health care trust and the number of workers who will make lower wages are key to determining whether the contract is enough to help Ford.

Merkle said even if Ford keeps plants open, it may cut shifts, as GM and Chrysler have done. Ford can’t price vehicles competitively if it’s paying too many workers and keeping too many plants open, he said.

“They’re just delaying the inevitable, and the inevitable is they need to reduce capacity,” he said. “The market’s so competitive. As long as we have this excess capacity situation, there isn’t going to be any pricing power.”

The deal came after a bargaining session that lasted more than 41 hours at the automaker’s headquarters in Dearborn.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in a statement that the deal encourages Ford to invest in its products while addressing the economic needs of union members. The UAW’s chief Ford negotiator, Bob King, said the union made progress in each of its three goals: Winning new product and investment, getting job security and protecting seniority rights.

“We face enormous challenges – and we also have enormous potential,” King said in a news release.

AP-ES-11-03-07 1749EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.