DEARBORN, Mich. — Contract talks between the United Auto Workers and Detroit's three automakers kicked off with the union president departing from the traditionally friendly tone by telling Ford executives that workers want a bigger share of the companies' record profits.
While Ford executives talked often about working together at a ceremony Monday, UAW President Gary Jones emphasized that he wants to end concessions and the companies outsourcing jobs to countries with lower-cost labor.
"We will protect our work, our jobs and our way of life," Jones said. "We expect an agreement that recognizes our contributions."
Bargaining over new four-year contracts between the Detroit automakers and the union representing 142,000 workers nationwide started Monday with a ceremonial handshake at Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters.
The two sides have been at relative peace during recent good times, but that could change as auto sales and profits begin to slow, health care costs rise and a labor cost gap widens with workers at foreign-owned assembly plants in the South.
Bill Dirksen, Ford's chief negotiator, tried to return to a more cooperative tone Monday, noting that there will be differences between the company and union.
"It's up to us to figure out those solutions, and I think we can do it."
Talks with General Motors and Fiat Chrysler will begin on Tuesday. The union's four-year contract with all three expires at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14.
Companies are looking to trim hourly labor costs, which have grown when compared with Southern U.S. factories run by Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai-Kia, Volkswagen and others. Fiat Chrysler pays about $55 per hour in wages and benefits to UAW workers, while it's $61 at Ford and $63 at GM.
That compares with an average of $50 per hour at plants owned by foreign-based automakers, according to the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank. Automakers want costs to be closer to their competitors so they don't have to charge higher prices or reduce profits like they did before the Great Recession.
"We have to stay competitive because consumers ultimately are going to be the ones who decide who wins and loses," said Ford President Joe Hinrichs.
Higher labor costs were among the reasons GM and Fiat Chrysler needed government bailouts and bankruptcy protection in 2009. UAW-represented workers make about $30 per hour in wages alone. Also health care costs are growing, and UAW workers pay only about 5% of the cost. Salaried workers pay about 30%. Automakers would like UAW workers to help reduce costs.