Ford Motor Co's labor chief said the U.S. automaker hopes to avoid a strike in its talks for a new labor deal with the United Auto Workers union, which officially began on Friday.

The last thing we want to do is incur a strike, said Marty Malloy at the kickoff ceremony at a Ford truck assembly plant in Dearborn, Michigan. We work great with the UAW.

At the ceremony at the Ford factory, the UAW negotiating team was dressed in sky blue pullover shirts, while Ford executives wore dark business suits and ties. Despite the sartorial differences, both sides voiced optimism about the talks.

Ford, which has not suffered a UAW strike since 1976, was the last of the three U.S. automakers to open talks with the UAW, following Chrysler on Monday and General Motors Co on Wednesday. While the UAW cannot strike GM or Chrysler, it has no such limitation with Ford.

However, UAW President Bob King reiterated: I don't think about strikes. We don't collectively think about strikes. He said the UAW might seek the members' permission to strike, but that was routine and had been done many times in the past.

In the four years since the union and the three Detroit automakers last negotiated labor deals, the companies were pushed into crisis by collapsing vehicle demand and the financial convulsion of 2008. Both GM and Chrysler, now controlled by Italy's Fiat , filed for bankruptcy and were bailed out by the Obama administration in 2009.

Ford did not take any bailout money as it mortgaged almost all its assets in late 2006 before the financial crisis hit.

Since then, however, the automakers have returned to profitability, and the UAW has emphasized job security as its top priority. Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally reiterated that the company plans to hire 7,000 workers in the United States in the next two years.

Mulally said he wanted to make the No. 2 U.S. automaker more competitive in these talks.

One desire of Ford and its rivals is to lower the total labor costs they incur compared with those paid by their foreign rivals at their U.S. plants. Malloy said Ford's total costs were about $58 an hour per hourly worker, $8 more than its foreign rivals.

King saw the numbers differently, however. We would respectfully do our math a little bit differently, but we'll talk about that at the bargaining table, he said.

King said one of his proposals in the talks will be for the union, which represents about 41,000 hourly workers at Ford's U.S. plants, to get seats on the company's board of directors. That repeats a goal he has laid out for all the automakers.

Ford global manufacturing chief John Fleming said the current economic troubles would not color the negotiations.

(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman and Bernie Woodall; editing by Carol Bishopric)