There was an elephant in the room during broadcast of Ford's third quarter results this week (November 2). Clearly it was an old one and much travelled. For many of the Ford high-ups ignoring it, the temptation was probably to imagine it was one of Hannibal's 37 which were part of that triumphal march across the Alps a few years ago.

Alan Mulally's chief exec's report of the three months to the end of September was certainly triumphal. The achievements had been huge. The mountains climbed in the three years he was leader have all been the right ones, and Ford seemed on course to reach the place where the prizes are for the taking.

Then news started to arrive of the results of the factory worker votes. Suddenly it became clear. The identity of the elephant in the room came into focus. It was the UAW.

As a listener it was like the clock had stopped ticking and time was moving backwards. Right from the outset of the results presentation there had been a loss of familiar landmarks: recession was barely a feature; insolvency was not a fleeting thought. The talk was all of Ford's growing market share, rising market demand, "spectacular" transaction values, a net income for the quarter of a billion dollars, and transformed product quality.

The North American car industry has had such a beating that it is quite astonishing to hear that it is flying backwards to the days of dualism - management and workers labouring along parallel lines. Britain used to be the shining example of how not to run a motor industry and took the show all the way to final closure of what had once been the world's fourth largest car-maker. Now Britain has a thriving community of multi-national car makers on-shore but no national champions.

In the US, the union does not want to give the same cost-saving concessions to Ford that it has given to the Government-subsidised GM and Chrysler. Thus Ford's request for a legally-binding ban on strikes for the duration of the 2011 pay talks has been refused.

There is no recourse to elementary arithmetic. For sure, Government Motors and the Crisis Corporation are partly in public ownership but Ford simply reached the same place by a different path. It too lost a fabulous sum of money - US$30bn - during the demand collapse. And it too needed emergency funding. It found its money in the commercial markets by hocking all its factories and now has a giant debt pile to service.

For the UAW to victimise the one of its three car makers which might actually have found a way out of the forest is strange. And it is even stranger when you wind in the fresh information that Mulally's manufacturing strategy fully involves the US and Canada because he believes that it is efficient for his organisation to make cars where they sell.

The man from the Detroit News took us straight back to the 1980s during the Press conference: "There is anger from the North America workers that there has not been equal sacrifice." Mulally countered that he and Bill Ford had both dropped their pay and taken no bonus and there had been no bonuses for senior people.

"Until now," he said in a manner as close to despairing as he gets, "we have all felt that we are pulling together and focussed on the right things." Why is it in the auto industry that making up is so very hard to do?

Rob Golding

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