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Strike Possible For Workers At Torrence Avenue Ford Plant

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2011 Ford Explorers roll of the assembly at the Chicago Assembly Plant on on December 1, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The plant builds the Ford Taurus, Explorer and Lincoln MK X. Ford reported Decmber 1, a 24 percent increase in November sales from the same period last year. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

2011 Ford Explorers roll of the assembly at the Chicago Assembly Plant on on December 1, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The plant builds the Ford Taurus, Explorer and Lincoln MK X. Ford reported Decmber 1, a 24 percent increase in November sales from the same period last year. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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UPDATED 10/13/11 5:29 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Workers at the Torrence Avenue Ford Assembly Plant on the city’s Far Southeast Side have voted overwhelmingly to reject a new contract with the automaker.

As WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports, the vote by employees represented by the United Auto Workers at the plant was 77 percent against a new four-year deal. It follows a more narrow rejection by a union local in Detroit, and may set the stage for a national strike.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports

Right now, there are more “no” votes than “yes” votes, but workers at other plants have not had their say. The Chicago Heights stamping plant began voting on the contract Thursday.

The vote against the agreement comes even though local union leaders think it is a good deal.

The local union chairman says his members have multiple issues with the agreement, and he plans to talk with them to find out what they are.

One issue at the Torrence Avenue plant is the plan by Ford to expand and add a shift. The new workers would earn close to half what longtime UAW workers earn, the Sun-Times reports.

There is also discontent over Ford’s earnings – $9 billion in two years – and not enough being returned to the workers after give-backs when Ford was losing billions, according to published reports.

The proposed UAW contract at Ford would pay workers a $6,000 signing bonus, but as CBS 2’s Roseanne Tellez reports, some workers questioned the fairness of the contract, given the resurgence of the auto industry and bonuses paid to Ford executives.

“I know a lot of people out there are gonna look at the unions as being greedy, but, you know, when you got our CEO and our presidents of North America making millions – more than I’ll ever make in my lifetime in one year – I’d just like a little piece of the pie back, that’s all,” Ford worker Ernest Mersch said.

Asked if he believes there will be a strike, Mersch said, “it’s hard to say” but said he’s willing to go on strike over the contract dispute.

While a strike is some way off, the workers at the plant are being told to prepare for one.

The tentative four-year contract agreement the union voted down would pay the automaker’s U.S. factory workers a $6,000 signing bonus and add thousands of U.S. factory jobs, including the 1,100 at the Torrence Avenue plant.

In total, Ford plans to add 5,750 U.S. factory jobs under the deal, on top of 6,250 it announced earlier this year, for a total of 12,000 jobs by 2015. It also pledged to invest $4.8 billion in its U.S. factories.

The local UAW chairman says he expects the 1,100 jobs will still be added at the Torrence Avenue plant, even if there is no agreement in place between Ford and the union. But Ford officials have not confirmed that claim.

Ford has spent $400 million to renovate the Torrence facility to build the 2011 Explorer SUV. The Taurus and Lincoln MKS sedans are also built there.

Considering Ford’s Chicago plant turns out one of America’s hottest selling vehicles – the Explorer – some analysts predicted the company would give in.

“If the deal were to not pass and we do end up seeing a strike, I’d be looking for, eventually, Ford to agree to some sort of higher signing bonus,” said Morningstar analyst David Whiston. “Ultimately you do need workers to make cars.”

Another sticking point for workers is that the contract would set up a two-tier system that pays new employees half what other workers make for doing the very same job.

However, Chicago’s vote might not be representative of Ford workers nationwide, who will be voting through Tuesday.

In a statement, Ford said, “The agreement is fair to our employees and improves Ford’s competitiveness in the U.S. We remain optimistic that the tentative agreement will be approved.”

Whiston said that, if the two sides can work it out, the deal would be great for the local economy.

“With every auto worker job on the line, that’s generally another 9 to 10 jobs that get created in the community,” he said.

Those other jobs include parts suppliers – as well as restaurant workers, teachers and barbers.

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