Ford, UAW marathon talks close in on labor pact

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DETROIT, Nov 3 (Reuters) Negotiators for Ford Motor Co and the United Auto Workers talked into Friday evening as the two sides closed in on a labor deal that would cap a historic round of bargaining between the union and the embattled U.S. auto industry.

Contract negotiations at Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters entered their 32nd consecutive hour, extending the longest-running bargaining session since UAW President Ron Gettelfinger returned to the talks on Tuesday.

The marathon session had begun at around 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Thursday, said a person briefed on the talks.

In four days of intensive talks, the two sides have made progress on key issues centered on health care costs and Ford's planned plant closings, putting a deal within reach as soon as Friday, the person said.

Ford, which has some 58,000 UAW-represented workers, is widely seen as having developed the most collaborative relationship of any of the three Detroit-based automakers with the union in recent years.

But the strength of Ford's ties to the union has also been tested by a push for deeper concessions than those granted to either General Motors Corp or Chrysler LLC.

Ford, which lost a record .6 billion last year, has indicated it was looking for about 8,000 to 10,000 additional factory job cuts. That would be in addition to the 27,000 UAW jobs Ford had cut as of June.

In addition, Chrysler's move on Thursday to cut up to another 10,000 UAW-represented factory jobs and eliminate four vehicles from its line-up could complicate the union's bargaining with Ford, analysts said.

Chrysler workers last week narrowly ratified a contract giving the automaker the flexibility to bring in new hires at half the wage rates of current workers and to shift some billion in retiree health care costs to a new trust fund.

Chrysler's immediate move to cut another one-fifth of its factory work force will make it more difficult now for UAW leadership to get Ford workers to ratify a contract with sweeping concessions, analysts said.

''Ford workers are going to feel a sense of betrayal to a point as well,'' said Jerry Tucker, a former UAW official who campaigned against ratification of the Chrysler and GM contracts.

Outside Ford's Rouge plant in Dearborn, several workers heading out from the morning shift said they were worried by the Chrysler example.

''We have faith in our union leadership, but we're also biting our nails a bit because of what happened at Chrysler,'' said one line worker who asked not to be identified because union leaders had asked the rank-and-file to avoid the media.

Ford has said it will close 16 North American factories as part of its restructuring but has so far identified only 10 of those.

Ford has 33 UAW-represented U.S. factories.

The six still-unidentified plants have now been swept into the contract talks, with Ford holding out the prospect of more limited plant closings in exchange for other concessions.

Both Ford and UAW declined to comment on the negotiations, citing the private nature of the bargaining.

The UAW has not yet issued a notice terminating its contract extension with Ford, in contrast to the harder line it took with Chrysler and GM. The extension could be ended by either party with a 72-hour notice.

Automotive News reported that Ford had offered to outsource fewer factory jobs with the UAW and to change the way a ''two-tier'' wage system would be implemented at the automaker's facilities.

Both GM and Chrysler won the right to bring in thousands of new workers at around per hour, about half of the base wage paid to current workers.

REUTERS SR SSC1053

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