Ford and the United Auto Workers have opened a new round of contract negotiations, saying they were committed to resolving their differences without a strike. UUAW negotiations with Chrysler began last Monday (25 July) and at GM on Wednesday.

“It’s like welcoming old friends back,” Ford chairman William Clay Ford said at the opening ceremony of the talks on Friday, according to AFP. “I’d like to thank you for what you’ve have done to help us weather an economic downturn that was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he added.

General Motors and Chrysler received federal help in 2009 that bailed the companies out of bankruptcy. The bailout terms include a provision banning workers at those companies from striking.

Ford, however, did not receive federal bailout funds so the unionised workers have the right to go on strike.

“We’re excited to be here,” said UAW president Bob King. “Ford turned around because of efforts of our members and we want to negotiate a contract that rewards them.”

King also dismissed talk of a possible strike at Ford. “I don’t think about a strike. It doesn’t enter my thought processes,” he said, heading off speculation the negotiations would be difficult because of the company’s healthy profits and generous executive compensation packages.

“I know we have some differences. We always do,” added Jimmy Settles, the UAW vice president in charge of the negotiations. But “we have learned the art of negotiation,” he said, adding the last strike at Ford was 35 years ago.

Ford chief executive Alan Mulally said the negotiations would set the stage for the next step in Ford’s growth, noting the company was prepared to add some 7,000 new employees over the next two years.

John Fleming, Ford’s executive vice president of global manufacturing, said the automaker had to reach a deal that helps Ford remain competitive.

“We simply cannot go back to the old way of doing business, which would threatened our momentum and hurt our ability to bring new investment and jobs into our US plants. We can and will grow jobs if we can compete effectively,” Fleming said.