Ford's promises avert strikes and save jobs

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The threat of a pre-election strike at Ford was lifted yesterday after management and unions reached an agreement over the future of the Halewood plant and the company's long-term presence in Britain.

As part of the deal, partly bankrolled by government aid, there will be 980 job losses at the Merseyside plant instead of the originally 1,300 and production rates will be at a higher level.

In two days of negotiations at a secret location in central London, union leaders were also reassured about Ford's commitment to other plants in the United Kingdom.

Jac Nasser, chairman of Ford Europe, further reassured employees' representatives that the Southampton plant, which produces Transit vans, was guaranteed a long-term future.

Senior Labour Party figures had been in close contact with union leaders over the dispute, anxious to avoid high-profile industrial action ahead of the election. The party believed the Conservatives would have made considerable political capital out of stoppages because of Labour's links with the union.

Plans for a ballot among Ford's 30,000 workers in Britain will be scrapped after a meeting next week at Halewood when union officials will reassure workers about their future.

In talks next week, Ford expects to win a package of state aid - estimated to be worth pounds 75m - which will underpin its plans for Halewood. Mr Nasser said the company's commitment to the region warranted some degree of support from the Government. He described the deal as historic, but argued that management had made "subtle" changes to its plans in order to appease employees' representatives. "The agreement we have made with the unions is good for Britain, good for Ford and good for the work force. What we have agreed builds on Ford's strong presence in product development and in manufacturing in this country," he said.

During the intensive talks, the company reaffirmed its commit-ment to nearly $1bn (pounds 625m) of investment in the UK over the next two to three years, including additional production facilities at Dagenham, Bridgend and Belfast. There would also be improved development facilities at the research centre at Dunton, Essex.

Workers at Halewood are also concerned that the company will finally confirm its commitment to producing a recreational vehicle based on the Escort. Mr Nasser, however, has pledged that other models would be introduced to the plant if the plans for the new vehicle were withdrawn. Union negotiators elicited additional pledges from management including the continued production of the Escort Estate and Escort van at Halewood.

Workers' leaders, however, failed to win a change of mind over the company's decision to build the replacement for the present Escort in Germany and Spain, but not on Merseyside.

Tony Woodley, national official of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said the deal removed workers' concerns over the company's long- term plans for the UK. "The company has put its money where its mouth is," he said.

Mr Woodley said the deal sent a message to other manufacturers that Merseyside was a good place to invest. "We have arrived at a deal which gives our people long-term security. It was not a victory or a defeat, but an honourable compromise," he added.