Ford Motor Co.'s decision not to accept seats made at Johnson Controls Inc. plants by replacement workers while those plants are on strike has surprised some suppliers and angered others.
Emotionally, these suppliers feel betrayed, though intellectually they may understand Ford is looking to protect its interests. In this case, taking on the United Auto Workers to support a supplier resisting union organizing efforts plainly is not to Ford's advantage.
Some suppliers particularly are upset over the automaker's position in the dispute because they say Ford encouraged JCI to permit the UAW to organize JCI's plants.
Ford's philosophy was shaped by its recent labor agreement with the UAW involving outsourcing and job security for union members. Ford has no problem with the UAW shoring up its membership by organizing suppliers whose employees earn less than Big Three workers.
The wage difference, of course, was one of the reasons the automakers began outsourcing. Former General Motors Corp. purchasing executive Jose Ignacio L¢pez de Arriortua raised the process to an art form by squeezing major command and control concessions from suppliers, as well.
The UAW's challenge is to slow the hemorrhaging of union jobs. Its point of attack has to be at the source of the drain, the parts suppliers, upon which the Big Three have shifted so much of the burden for their profit and loss statements.
What the suppliers are experiencing is much more than just a failure to communicate or a simple, perceived act of betrayal. The symbiotic relationship between them and the Big Three increasingly reflects a marriage of convenience in which the participants stay together only for economic reasons.
The automakers, the UAW and the suppliers each are involved in a serious struggle for survival. That situation significantly has altered the rules of the game and the code of conduct everyone once observed in Detroit.
There is a growing risk that, like all relationships stressed to the bursting point, the one between the suppliers, the UAW and the Big Three eventually will rupture. The JCI experience is, like the spring robin, merely a harbinger of things to come.