- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

DETROIT

The United Auto Workers and Ford Motor Co. said Monday they agreed to let the automaker change how it pays for a health care trust fund for retired workers, a deal that could serve as the model for cash-starved General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC.

Ford said the agreement allows it to make payments to the union-managed trust with up to 50 percent of company stock instead of cash. Having the UAW take equity frees up cash for operations.

“We will consider each payment when it is due and use our discretion in determining whether cash or stock makes sense at the time, balancing our liquidity needs and preserving shareholder value,” Ford spokesman Mark Truby said.

Ford, like its Detroit and foreign competitors, is seeing a huge drop in sales as consumers shy away from purchasing new cars during a recession. However, the company has not asked for low-interest federal loans from the government. GM and Chrysler have asked for a total of $39.6 billion, and have received $17.4 billion so far.

Under terms of the government loans, Chrysler and GM must exchange half their cash payments to the trusts - called voluntary employee beneficiary associations, or VEBAs - for equity in the companies. Money freed up by supporting the VEBA with equity would potentially pare down the amount of money GM and Chrysler would borrow from the government.

For Ford, which isn’t receiving government aid but is trying to cut costs, the agreement announced Monday is another in a series of concessions from auto workers.

Terms of previous deals were not announced, but they were expected to eliminate the jobs bank in which laid-off workers get most of their pay, as well as make work rule and other changes that the government loan terms set out so the companies’ labor costs are competitive with their Japanese counterparts that have U.S. factories.

The UAW, meanwhile, said the health care trust deal helps save jobs, as a failure to help the auto companies cut costs could lead to a bankruptcy filing and massive layoffs across the industry.

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