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The United Auto Workers union has kicked off contract talks with Ford, which is one of the Calumet Region's largest employers, with about 5,000 local workers.

Ford, which operates the Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch and the Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights, is looking to no longer be saddled with the highest labor costs in the automotive industry. The UAW, which made deep concessions during the darkest days of the Great Recession, hopes to end a two-tier pay system in which younger workers are paid less than more veteran employees doing the same job.

The current four-year contract, which expires on Sept. 14, included no general wage increase but allowed for bonuses such as a ratification lump sum, an inflation protection bonus, and a competitiveness bonus. Companies often prefer the flexibility of bonuses, which aren't locked in as long-term operating costs the way raises are.

"During the dark days of '07, '08, '09, we pulled together back from the brink of extinction," Executive Chairman Bill Ford recently said at Cass Tech High School in Detroit for the official kickoff of labor negotiations. "I for one will never forget the sacrifices and also the incredible dedication that took place during that time. We all did pull together to save our company at that time."

Unlike the last time the two parties came to the bargaining table, the automotive industry is booming.

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Since the 2011 contract, Ford has added 15,00 jobs and invested $6.2 billion in the United States, where it operates 19 factories, according to the automaker. The Dearborn, Mich.-based company posted a North American profit of $6.9 billion in 2014. It expects to make between $8.5 billion and $9.5 billion this year, after a historic net income of $1.9 billion in the second quarter.

Workers say they deserve to share in the good times when the current four-year deal expires on Sept. 14 at midnight. The UAW, which represents 52,000 hourly workers nationwide, wants shared prosperity, President Dennis Williams said.

"From the battle of the overpass to the new era of partnership, from the early days of the post-war auto boom to the phenomenal growth of Ford after the Great Recession in recent years, the UAW and Ford have a long history together," Williams said. "Today, I call on our decades together to launch us into contract talks that build on the prosperity that our members' sacrifices have helped create with Ford, including a very good profit sharing program that's paid off for the company, the stockholders and our members. We can all win here."

Ford workers deserve a boost in pay, and it doesn't have to come at the expense of shareholders, Vice President Jimmy Settles said.

"We know the challenges we face and the expectations we have as we enter these negotiations, and we look forward to reaching a collective bargaining agreement that provides financial gains for our membership, while ensuring that Ford remains on its current path of profitability," he said.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.