LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- A “critical” goal for Ford Motor Co. in this year's contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers union is to “maintain a competitive environment," Ford's top labor relations executive told a Kentucky audience Friday.

John Fleming, Ford's executive vice president of global manufacturing and labor affairs, declined to say more ahead of negotiations that will start in earnest this summer to renew a four-year UAW contract that expires Sept. 15.

With Ford on firm financial ground following a successful turnaround under former CEO Alan Mullaly, hourly workers' wages, healthcare benefits and profit-sharing payments are expected to be key issues in the negotiations.

Under the 2011 contract, hourly workers were separated into a tiered wage system with new hires starting with a lower wage of $15.78 an hour. (Because of annual raises, most of the second-tier workers make $17-$18 an hour, Ford spokeswoman Kristina Adamski said.)

Fleming, who gave the keynote speech at the Kentuckians for Better Transportation conference in Lexington on Friday, declined to say whether base wages for workers would increase in the new contract.

“My expectation is that we will come out with the right answer that will allow us to be able to be competitive as we go forward, to continue to grow jobs and (we hope) the employees feel good about it as well – that's really the objective for us,” Fleming told WDRB News on Friday following his speech.

“We have to balance. If we want to be able to in-source work, if we want to grow jobs, we're going to have to work out what's the right approach for us to be able to do it competitively.”

Ford employs about 8,200 in Louisville between Kentucky Truck Plant – which makes the Expedition, F-Series Super Duty pickup trucks and Lincoln Navigator – and Louisville Assembly Plant, where the Escape and Lincoln MKC sport-utility vehicles are made.

The MKC, introduced last year at Louisville Assembly Plant, is “going very well for us,” Fleming told the conference audience in Lexington.

Fleming gave no hints of increased production at either Louisville plant, though he said current sales bode well for the future, assuming successful contract negotiations later this year.

“Every one of the vehicles we produce in Louisville -- we can sell them. So there is an opportunity to do more,” he said.

No impact from gas prices

Have plunging gas prices increased consumers' appetite for the F-250 through F-550 pickups and other big vehicles made Kentucky Truck Plant?

“So far, I think we've seen very little impact from falling gas prices…We're going to have to wait and see what happens,” Fleming said. “It's a relatively new phenomenon. We don't know if it's temporary. We don't know whether it's permanent. We don't know the degree of it.”

In fact, while it's “good news” that consumers have more disposable income, Fleming said a sustained drop in gas prices will make it “a little more difficult” for the auto industry to keep meeting federal fuel economy standards because it will lessen the incentive to purchase more efficient cars.

No timeline for aluminum Super Duty's

Kentucky Truck Plant is getting renovations in connection with Ford's announcement this time last year that it would increase production of the Super Duty pickups and add about 350 hourly workers, Fleming said.

Like the 2015 F-150 pickups made in Dearborn, Michigan, the next generation of Super Duty trucks will be composed of more aluminum and less steel, which will decrease their weight and increase towing capacity, Fleming said.

“This is a totally different manufacturing process,” Fleming said.

He could not say when the changeover to aluminum production will occur at Kentucky Truck Plant nor which model year Super Duty's will have the aluminum composition.

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