The United Auto Workers union (UAW) and Ford in the early hours of Saturday reached a tentative agreement on a four-year national labour contract covering approximately 54,000 represented employees in the United States, the automaker said at the weekend.

Ford's official announcement of the agreement apparently came after a marathon 39-hour bargaining session that, according to the Associated Press (AP), ended in the early hours of Saturday morning with a small number of negotiators staying on for more discussions.

A person briefed on the deal told AP Ford had scaled back plans to close some US plants and has promised to make significant product investments to ensure those plants will remain open for now.

In a statement the UAW said its negotiators reached a deal with Ford at 3:20am Saturday.

"Our bargaining committee came through for our active and retired members," said UAW president Ron Gettelfinger. "Our team is proud of each and every negotiator because they have encouraged Ford to invest in product and people while addressing the economic needs of our active and retired members."

"We face enormous challenges - and we also have enormous potential," said UAW vice president Bob King, who directs the union's national Ford department. "Our goals for this contract were to win new product and investment, to enhance job security and protect seniority - and we made progress in all these areas."

Details of the agreement will be provided to UAW Ford members at explanation and ratification meetings at local union branches.

Ford confirmed the agreement is subject to ratification by the UAW members and includes a memorandum of understanding to establish an independent retiree health care trust.

"Though we will not discuss the specifics of the tentative agreement until after it becomes final, we believe it is fair to our employees and retirees, and paves the way for Ford to increase its competitiveness in the United States," the Ford statement said.

AP had earlier suggested that ratification might be made difficult by Chrysler's actions on Thursday to cut 8,500 to 10,000 hourly jobs and 2,100 salaried jobs to the end of 2008, or about 15% of its work force. The cuts come on top of 13,000 Chrysler layoffs that were announced in February.

Thursday's layoffs came less than a week after Chrysler workers ratified a new four-year deal with the company that had job security guarantees at many plants at least for the life of the contract, the news agency noted.

Under the new contract, workers who are laid off will get about 95% of their pretax pay for 48 weeks, then would go into a 'jobs bank' for up to two years if there are no jobs open in the company. After the two years, the UAW and Chrysler would negotiate a plan for workers, a summary of the contract said, according to AP.

Gary Walkowicz, a worker and former local union official at a Ford truck plant in Dearborn, told the Associated Press that talk on the assembly line Thursday was that workers at Chrysler and GM were deceived by job security pledges.

"It's pretty clear that both at General Motors and Chrysler, the workers were lied to," Walkowicz reportedly said. "They were promised job security. The ink wasn't dry on the contract and they're turning around and making layoffs."

In October, GM announced layoffs of more than 1,700 people at three plants in the Pontiac, Detroit and Lansing areas, AP noted.

GM spokesman Tom Wickham reportedly said his company's job cuts were planned well in advance of the contract and were based on demand for products.

Chrysler vice chairman and president Tom LaSorda said in a Friday interview Friday on 'The Paul W. Smith Show' on WJR-AM that the decisions also were based on lower demand, the Associated Press added.

"We're right-sizing the company based on what's happening in the market," he was quoted as saying. "I don't think it's a permanent move."

Prior to confirmation of the tentative agreement, AP said negotiators were weighing the UAW's demand for promises that new vehicles would be built at US factories against Ford's desire to further downsize its manufacturing capacity to match lower demand for its products.

One source said Ford wanted to reduce its US hourly work force by another 13,000 employees through additional buyout and early retirement programmes while the union wanted the company to spare from closure some of the six factories earmarked.

The news agency noted that Ford already has announced its intent to shut down 16 factories as part of a restructuring plan. The company has identified 10 of the closures, but has yet to announce the remaining six. The closures are to be fully completed by 2012.

If more workers leave, some of them could be replaced by so-called 'noncore' employees who would be paid on a lower wage scale, starting around $14 per hour. An average Ford hourly worker made $28.88 per hour in 2006, according to the company, AP said. Such noncore staff are usually those not actually building vehicles but doing support tasks such as driving forklifts.

Separately, a union source told Automotive News the automaker had agreed to outsource fewer non-production factory jobs than General Motors or Chrysler, including forklift-driving positions.

The source was also reported to have said Ford was backing away to a degree from new-hire provisions in competitive operating agreements that it inked with UAW branches at all but two of its 31 factories over the past 18 months.

The union source also told Automotive News that Ford would require fewer forklift and other materials-handling jobs be contracted with outside suppliers than were allowed under the local agreements.

The carmaker also has agreed to other changes in its approach to new hires found in the GM and Chrysler contracts approved over the past month, the source reportedly said.

Ford is expected to announce next week that more than 30,000 hourly workers have taken previous early retirement or buyout offers, the Associated Press added.