By Bernie Woodall
(Reuters) - Workers at a key Ford Motor Co plant in Chicago overwhelmingly rejected a four-year contract proposed by the company and the United Auto Workers, a local union official said on Thursday.
It was the second big Ford plant to reject the deal and the 77 percent margin throws into jeopardy the ratification of the Ford pact for the 41,000 UAW-represented production workers, said Scott Houldieson, secretary-treasurer of UAW Local 551.
Workers at U.S. Ford plants vote through October 18 on the proposed deal that Ford's head of global manufacturing, John Fleming, said would "improve our competitiveness here in the United States" as well as offer a fair deal for workers to share in the company's success.
Fleming made his comments last week when the UAW and Ford reached agreement on the tentative contract now being voted on by the rank-and-file.
Of the 2,317 Chicago Assembly Plant workers casting ballots, more than three-quarters voted to reject the proposed deal, Houldieson said.
Workers at the Chicago plant make up more than 6 percent of the No. 2 automakers' 41,000 UAW-represented workers.
The tentative Ford contract calls for profit-sharing and signing bonuses rather than wage increases for veteran workers, who have not received a wage hike since 2003.
Earlier this week, UAW Local 900, where 2,582 workers voted from three plants including Michigan Assembly in Wayne, Michigan, 51 percent voted to reject the proposed contract. On Tuesday, the UAW said that with about 7 percent of the overall vote counted, the ratification tally was running nearly 50-50.
Houldieson said he could not predict the outcome of the overall vote but said the margin in Chicago makes him believe that the "no" votes are now ahead in the current count.
"Michigan Assembly voted 'no' by a slim margin," said Houldieson. "If they get other plants to vote yes by small margins, then our vote definitely will tip the scales."
Houldieson said that he had heard from workers that they did not like the lack of a cost-of-living allowance in the contract and the continuation of a two-tier pay scale.
The proposed contract would raise newer workers who make "second-tier" wages of just over half that of veteran production workers, to $19.28 per hour over several years. But that would still leave the second-tier workers at 70 percent of the $28.12-per-hour pay of veteran workers, which was not enough for many voters, Houldieson said.
UAW President Bob King said on Wednesday that he expects ratification of the contract at both Ford and Chrysler. He said the union pushed for the best deal under difficult economic circumstances and that if the UAW is successful in organizing U.S. plants of Japanese, Korean and German automakers, it would have more power to fight for higher pay and benefits.
General Motors Co workers in late September ratified their new four-year contract, which is slightly less generous than the proposed Ford pact.
On Wednesday, Chrysler Group LLC and the UAW reached a tentative deal that is less generous than GM's contract. UAW officials said that Chrysler's 26,000 UAW-represented workers will hold ratification votes over the next two weeks.
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