Workers at Ford Motor Co.'s Chicago Stamping Plant have approved new work rules that the automaker hopes will serve as a model for other facilities as it struggles to make its American factories more efficient and cost-competitive.
The new agreement aims to improve efficiency on the factory floor by dividing the plant's work force into more flexible production teams and loosening restrictions on job classifications so workers can be assigned to jobs where they are most needed.
"There are significant improvements in flexibility," said Jim Sanfilippo, an analyst with AMCI in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who has seen the agreement. "I'm hoping this kind of thing permeates Ford and spreads virally."
Similar changes already have been made at other Ford facilities, and the company also hopes to see such agreements extended to other plants in the future.
"As we turn around our North American operations, it's critical that our plants become more competitive," said Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari. "We're working with our local union partners in all of our locations to become more efficient and operate as the most competitive facilities in the world."
The terms of local labor agreements, which cover work rules and conditions at specific factories, are becoming increasingly important as Detroit automakers struggle to match the efficiency and costs of Asian plants.
Workers at the Chicago plant were told their facility was not competitive and would not be considered for new work unless they approved the new work rules, sources familiar with the negotiations said. They were also told the plant might lose existing work, raising the specter of layoffs.
The new work rules were approved by a vote of 944-95. United Auto Workers Local 588, which represents workers at the plant, has 1,375 members. A formal vote was not necessary under the current labor contract, but Ford and union leaders wanted workers to deliver a clear mandate for the changes.
Sanfilippo said the results show just how rapidly the UAW is changing.
"They get it. They supported it. They wanted it," he said, calling the vote a "wake-up call to anyone who still doubts the intelligence of the UAW rank and file."
Local union leaders could not be reached for comment. The stamping plant is closed as part of the automaker's annual summer shutdown.
Ford applauded the cooperative spirit demonstrated by workers at the facility.
"We're extremely pleased with the transformation that Chicago Stamping is going through," Gattari said. "They understand what it takes."
The plant, which opened in 1956, produces hoods, side panels and other components for the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans, as well as the Ford Freestyle crossover utility vehicle, all of which are assembled at Ford's nearby Chicago Assembly Plant.
Sources said the company is seeking a similar agreement there, but has encountered resistance from UAW leaders at that facility.
General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group have succeeded in putting similar work rules into effect at some of their factories.
Most factories organized by the UAW divide the labor of automotive assembly into dozens of job classifications, and workers are rarely allowed to do work not covered in their job description.
But at GM's Grand River Assembly Plant in Lansing, Mich., a model for the auto industry, workers are organized into teams and can be rotated to fill in for one another as needed.