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Auto talks prediction: GM, Chrysler rout Ford, UAW

TGIF. Ford Motor Co. today was the last of the Detroit 3 to hold its ceremonial handshake to open contract talks with the UAW.

Thankfully, the prelims are over and negotiators can get to the business of bargaining.

Greeting UAW President Bob King today were Ford’s heavy hitters: CEO Alan Mulally, Executive Chairman Bill Ford, and President of the Americas Mark Fields.

To say the ceremonies this week were windy and protein-free would be charitable. Little exciting happened except for Chrysler and UAW negotiators wearing matching outfits at the first kickoff and General Motors labor vice president Cathy Clegg publicly encouraging Bob King to organize the transplants at the second.

But please allow me to summarize what I’ve discerned through the smoke and mirrors:

– Net Chrysler and GM labor costs won’t rise during the next four-year contract. That’s great news for shareholders but less great for hourly workers who haven’t had a wage increase since 2003.

Sure, they’ll get a signing bonus and a slightly better profit-sharing plan. But Chrysler and GM will innocuously take that money from somewhere else like health care or factory flexibility. The reality is that GM and Chrysler workers gave up the right to strike this time around during 2009 concessions. And they lose if they go to binding arbitration.

– Ford will end up paying more at the labor pump than cross-town rivals. Sorry, folks, you’re the most profitable of the Detroit 3 and most generous to your CEO and executive chairman.

Even though King would like to keep you in pattern with GM and Chrysler, he knows from recent experience that Ford workers will reject a contract they don’t like. They can still strike because they went against his wishes in 2009 and turned down no-strike concessions.

Ford’s 41,000 rank-and-file also have a seasoned opposition leader in Rouge Assembly committee man Gary Walkowicz, who led the charge against the 2009 concessions. (Remember those catcalls, Bob, drowning you out at your home local in Dearborn?)

No, Ford needs a better idea – more money for hourly workers than GM and Chrysler will negotiate.

– A final word about Bob King: These talks will be his defining moment as UAW president. If Ford workers strike or reject a deal brought forward, his effort to organize the transplants is poisoned. He’s been portraying the “new” UAW as an enlightened partner capable of making each represented automaker more productive, competitive and focused on quality. That vaporizes in a strike.

It also will be interesting to see how King manages the expectations of his soon-to-be-disappointed members at GM and Chrysler. No easy task. A sell-job trying to justify a no-raise contract with the old “you’d do worse in arbitration” speech is going to fall flat.

But that’s where King is – thanks to the no-strike pledges in 2009. If only he’d gotten that concession at Ford, too. He could have negotiated this year in pattern, declared victory and headed south to the transplants.

Instead, the Ford talks loom large for the union’s future and his legacy.

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Wonder what would happen if Ford dropped the union altogether…