Ron Gettelfinger sat in one of the two wood chairs in front of the simple oak desk of William Clay Ford, Jr. The desk was the same one used by Henry Ford eighty years ago. William had it restored. William was adjusting himself in his large smooth red leather office chair. The difference in chair sizes did not escape Ron Gettelfinger. Since becoming President of the United Automobile Workers, he had met with all the big three car companies. But this meeting was unusual. Ford called him personally and said he had something important to discuss in private.
"You are in a bind, Ron," said Ford.
"How so?" asked Gettelfinger.
"We have set ourselves up for failure. Your members cannot be sustained at their current living standard because my company is going to go bankrupt and everyone loses," said Ford.
"If this is going to be about how you will file bankruptcy if I do not make concessions, then I suggest we end this meeting right now," said Gettelfinger. Gettelfinger suspected that this might be just another one of those empty threats that have been made for decades by automotive executives. But Ford usually took the back seat, waiting for General Motors to throw out trial balloons.
"You are not hearing me. I said we are all going to go down. Your members, my company, the shareholders, maybe even the United States of America. I don't fucking know how far this will reach. All I know is that you and I have to change something. And we have to do it now," said Ford.
"I am bored already, Bill," said Gettelfinger.
"What if I tell you that I want to cancel all our union contracts and replace them with something else," said Ford.
"I would say you are crazy," said Gettelfinger.
"We are partners, Ron. Your members, my shareholders, our company, we are all partners in this enterprise. Do you see us as partners?" asked Ford.
"Of course," said Gettelfinger. What was he going to say. Adversarial discourse was kept hidden with words of cooperation. The car companies and union had always referred to themselves as parters, at least for the last three decades.
'I plan to offer your members one hundred thousand shares of Ford Motor Company common stock for each full year that a member has worked for Ford. Plus, I propose to offer one million shares of Ford common stock for each member in retirement for each year that they have been in retirement. And I propose to keep issuing the stock for a five year period following the termination of all union contracts," said Ford.
The offer stunned Gettelfinger. He did not know what to make of it.
"Your shareholders would never permit you to do that," said Gettelfinger.
"That is my job. To sell it to them. Your job is to sell it to your members," said Ford.
"I'm not sure I want to sell it to them. The issuance will dilute the stock, the value of the stock will plummet, Wall Street will hate you for it," said Gettelfinger.
"All I want for in return from you is for your members to contribute fifty percent to their health insurance premiums, and to move all pension assets to 401ks. Plus, no longer will Ford pay salaries for workers dismissed. But Ford will make matching contributions with each paycheck to the 401ks, but the control over the pension moneys becomes the responsibility of your members. It is off Ford's books," said Ford.
"I cannot assess the offer. Is GM willing to make this offer?" asked Gettelfinger.
"I don't care what GM does. I no longer consider GM an example for how to manage my business. This is an offer from the Ford Motor Company to move your members and our company into the 21st Century," said Ford.
"I cannot assess the offer," said Gettelfinger.
'Of course. I will put it in writing. It will be spelled out. But it is something we must do, or else your union and my company will become irrelevant," said Ford.
"There might be other ways," said Gettelfinger.
"Possibly. But I have not heard any other way as of today. So as of today, this is what we have to work on. And Ron, we have to work on it. Otherwise we are dead men. You understand me. My offer makes us true partners. Not bullshit partners," said Ford.
"Dead men?" said Gettelfinger.
"As dead as the Edsel," said Ford. "As dead as the Edsel. So we are either real partners, or we are dead."
There. Ford said it. The offer hung in the air. Gettelfinger was lost. Ford felt a little lost too. But this was a new world. Sort of like how Great Grandpa confronted the 20th Century, he now was confronting the 21st.