United Auto Workers Wants to Save "Plants on The Bubble" in Talks

United Auto WorkersBy Bernie Woodall

DETROIT -- The 750 hourly auto workers assembling Ford Motor Co's (F.N) small pickup truck at a Minnesota plant scheduled to close by year end are hoping for a miracle in the upcoming labor talks between their union and the U.S. automaker.

However, the members of United Auto Workers Local 879, which represents workers at the Ford plant in St. Paul, are not holding their breath even as they build the Ranger truck.

"There's always hope, (but) it's kind of sad around here," said Marsha Anderson-Shearon, financial secretary at the local.

While the St. Paul plant's fate may seem all but sealed, it is among six U.S. auto assembly plants considered "on the bubble" for a change in status. The fate of those plants and their jobs will be a hot topic during the talks, which are scheduled to begin with Ford, General Motors Co (GM.N) and Chrysler Group LLC the week of July 25.

One reason for hope for the St. Paul workers are the repeated statements by top UAW executives that job security and product commitments -- rather than wage increases -- will be their top priority.

Three of the plants in question, including St. Paul, make vehicles the companies expect to discontinue, two have no product currently to assemble and one is down to a single shift with a lot excess capacity.

"A plant without a product is a plant that is nervous," said Kristin Dziczek, director of labor and industry at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In 2007, when the UAW and U.S. automakers last negotiated their four-year labor deals, the union went after product commitments from companies, just as it is expected to do this year, she said.

Put more simply by Joe Ashton, the UAW vice president in charge of GM relations, the talks are all about "jobs, jobs, jobs" this time around.

"Product commitments equate to jobs, so that is exactly the direction we are looking at," said Ashton in late March.

It was also in late March that Ashton indicated the union would drop its decades-long push for higher wages in lieu of product commitments.

That comment caught the attention of people at six plants without certain futures.

Three of those plants are owned by GM. Three are owned by Ford. Chrysler, which is managed by Fiat (FIA.MI), has no plants likely to be affected by this year's talks.

The GM plants are in Spring Hill, Tennessee; Shreveport, Louisiana and Janesville, Wisconsin.

"The real big deal for the union is going to be jobs," said Art Schwartz, a former GM labor official and now a labor consultant.

"They are going to try to keep Shreveport open. They are going to try to get Spring Hill reopened. It's an uphill battle. I don't know how successful they'll be."

Of the GM plants, the most likely to be given a new product is Spring Hill, Schwartz and Dziczek said in separate interviews. Each said the plant is flexible enough to adapt to make several types of vehicles, and has active engine and stamping operations.

Schwartz said that GM will put a product in Spring Hill only if demand for the company's vehicles continues to rebound after the recession to the point it can put two shifts at the plant while keeping inventory levels at desirable levels.

Spring Hill is the former Saturn plant that opened in 1985 when GM attempted "a different kind of car company." GM put Saturn on the block in 2009 during its bankruptcy, and shuttered the brand when Penske Automotive Group (PAG.N) dropped its plan to buy the brand.

Ford plants whose futures may be decided at the bargaining table are in Flat Rock, Michigan; Avon Lake, Ohio; and the Minnesota plant, which opened in 1925 making the Model T. The Flat Rock plant is a 50-50 joint venture between Ford and Mazda Motor Corp (7261.T).

The future of the Flat Rock plant, which makes the Ford Mustang, is the most unclear, Dziczek said. Last month, Mazda announced it would cease production of the Mazda6 sedan at Flat Rock after its current cycle ends, which has been reported as late 2012.

Mazda has not said if it would pull out of the joint venture with Ford. Even after the Mazda6 cycle ends, Mazda at this point would still own half of the plant.

So the future of the plant may depend on whether Ford places another product in the plant, because it would be well under capacity making only the Mustang, Dziczek said.

The large Ford E-Series vans, now made at a plant in Avon Lake, Ohio, are also on the bubble, said Dziczek.

The Econoline are getting "long in the tooth" and while Ford has not said it will stop making the vans, there is much speculation about their future and that of the plant west of Cleveland, said Dziczek.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall, editing by Bernard Orr)

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