CAW close to deal with Ford, Lewenza says

The Canadian Auto Workers union says negotiations with Ford Motor Co. have taken a positive turn, and the two sides are close to a deal.

"We do not have a deal as of right now but … we're picking away and we are darn close to a deal," CAW head Ken Lewenza told CBC News.

"I'm feeling incredibly confident ... that we can get a deal done at Ford in the next couple of hours."

Negotiations between the Big Three North American automakers and their Canadian workers are under the gun, as a midnight deadline to reach a deal with Ford has neared. The CAW has said its strategy will be to focus its energies on negotiations with Ford before trying to make a similar deal with the other companies.

Chrysler, GM concerns

CAW president Ken Lewenza told a Toronto news conference that Ford has shown a "clear willingness" to reach a new contract and the union will work around the clock to achieve that, hoping to use a Ford agreement as leverage with General Motors and Chrysler.

Chrysler and GM have expressed concern with that strategy, since Ford is far less dependent on Canadian manufacturing in their supply chain. Ford employs 4,534 unionized workers in Canada. Chrysler and GM employ more than 8,000 unionized workers each.

"Ford has less interest in what their Canadian labour cost is," said auto-industry expert Tony Faria, of the Odette School of Business. "Whether they are able to easily get that deal accepted by GM and Chrysler might be another issue."

The major North American automakers say cost concessions are needed to make Canadian auto manufacturing more competitive. Ford claims it costs $79 per hour, per worker, to build a car in Canada. In the U.S., the company says that figure drops to $64, and Ford was looking to see that ratio get closer to parity.

Strike possible

Though Lewenza did not say if Ford has agreed to a union proposal that would lower wages for new hires but still allow them to progress eventually to full pay, he suggested the company isn't dead set against the idea.

"Ford isn't philosophically opposed to anything other than to say, 'Folks, keep your costs down, keep it manageable,' and [then] we can share in the success with the company together."'

He said Ford "hasn't promised anything" but added the company has indicated it agrees in principle to some of the union's issues, which he said are being reviewed for possible "tweaking."

If the negotiations hit a brick wall, the CAW says it is in a position to put its near-21,000 members on strike at one or all of the automakers' plants.

"That is the last tool in the bargaining toolbox," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press