Though they are sometimes blamed for the financial woes at other car companies, labor unions actually helped "save" Ford Motor as competitors such as General Motors went bankrupt, Bill Ford told CNBC on Thursday.
Ford, the executive chairman of the Detroit automaker, said in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box" that former UAW President Ron Gettelfinger doesn't get enough credit for helping to shore up the books during Ford's "darkest hour."
"When we got into a really tough period, I sat down with Ron and I said, 'You have to help me save the Ford Motor Company so we didn't have to go through bankruptcy, so we didn't have to get a federal bailout,'" Ford said. "And he did that."
Ford credited the union with helping his company regain a foothold in the North American market. He added that the UAW helped the entire industry "get back on its feet."
After years of receiving favorable contracts leading up to Ford's financial woes that began in 2007, the UAW rebalanced its health-care costs and improved performance in manufacturing plants, he said.
Asked about why he thought Volkswagen employees in Tennessee declined to unionize last month, Ford chalked it up to the South's attitude toward unions.
"Surprised? No, because there's a long history of organizing that didn't go well in the South," Ford said. "I would say this. We've had a great relationship with our workforce. I don't look at them as union and nonunion but as Ford workers. ... We have a lot of second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and even sixth-generation workers at Ford in our company."
Those employees helped pull the auto company "through the dark days," Ford added.
In contrast, one of Ford's fiercest competitors, GM, went bankrupt during the financial crisis and was taken over by the government. GM emerged from government control this winter, only to face increasing scrutiny and criticism for how it handled a recall of faulty ignition switches.
Ford declined to address the GM recall specifically, but said he saw it as a teachable moment.
"It's a tough situation for everyone involved obviously," Ford said. "One thing we do whenever one of our competitors goes through something like this, we try to learn everything we can from it. We review our own processes to make sure that we're robust."
Ford also commented on the auto industry's rising star, Tesla Motors, the electric car maker fighting a state-by-state campaign against cars marked directly by the manufacturer to consumers. New Jersey this month became the third state to block Tesla's direct sales model.
After saying he didn't know whether Tesla's direct sales platform should be allowed, Ford seemed to side with the established dealer model.
"I think that model really works," he said. "The real question is what's the best way to serve the customer? Because ultimately, ... our dealers have many years of knowing the customer experience and treating them well. Not just in the sales part, but the important part is the after sale, all the service. Our dealers have figured out that's where you really treat your customer well, and if you do do that, they'll come back to you."
—By CNBC's Jeff Morganteen. Follow him on Twitter: @jmorganteen.