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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

UAW expands strikes at Ford and GM

Members of the United Automobile Workers gather for a brief meeting with their strike captain outside of the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., Sept. 26, 2023.

By Neal E. Boudette

The United Automobile Workers union increased the pressure on Ford Motor and General Motors by extending its strike to two more car assembly plants Friday, saying the companies had not moved far enough to meet its demands for higher pay and benefits.

The move was the second escalation of strikes that started Sept. 15 at three plants, one each owned by GM, Ford and Stellantis, the parent of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram. The union said it would not expand the strike against Stellantis this week because of progress in negotiations there.

The UAW’s president, Shawn Fain, said workers at a Ford plant in Chicago and a GM factory in Lansing, Michigan, would walk off the job Friday. GM makes the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse SUVs at the Lansing plant. Ford makes the Explorer, the Police Interceptor Utility and Lincoln Aviator in Chicago.

“Ford and GM have refused to make meaningful progress at the bargaining table,” Fain said in a livestreamed video.

Ford’s Chicago plant employs about 4,600 UAW members, and GM’s Lansing plant has 2,300 union workers. Including the workers who walked off the job earlier, more than 25,000 UAW members at the three companies have been called on to stop working. The three automakers together employ nearly 150,000 UAW members.

A week ago, workers walked out at 38 spare-parts distribution centers owned by GM and Stellantis. The UAW did not expand its strike at Ford because, the union said at the time, it had made significant progress in contract negotiations with that company.

The UAW is seeking a substantial wage increase for workers and opened the talks by demanding a 40% raise, pointing to the substantial profits all three companies have generated over the last decade and to the size of the pay increases for their CEOs over the last four years.

The companies have each offered roughly 20% over four years. Ford and the union have reached agreements on some other demands, including cost-of-living adjustments if inflation surges again and the right to strike if the company closes plants.

“Fain is out-negotiating the car companies, and he is having fun making them dance while he calls them names,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan who follows the auto industry. “One week he gets Ford to give more in the hope of not being targeted for another closure. The next week he tells Ford they haven’t given enough and closes one of their plants.”

But if the companies agree to most of the union’s demands, they could struggle to compete in the fast-growing market for electric vehicles, which is dominated by Tesla, a nonunion automaker, Gordon said. “The union will enjoy big gains for a few years until the companies’ inability to compete causes job losses,” he said.

The parties have met regularly, and Thursday, the union presented its latest counteroffer to Stellantis, the union said. Negotiating teams from the UAW and GM met Wednesday in a session attended by Fain.

The union leader’s online remarks Friday were delayed for nearly half an hour by what he called “a flurry of interest from the companies in addressing some serious bargaining issue.” He did not provide more details.

Ford’s chief executive, Jim Farley, said Friday that the company and the UAW were “very close” to a deal but remained apart on potential contract terms for workers at four electric vehicle battery factories the company is building. “If the UAW’s goal is a record contract, they already have that,” he told reporters on a conference call.

In the company’s view, discussions about the battery plants should not hold up the negotiations on a new four-year contract because they won’t be completed for two years or more.

The union sees things differently. Union leaders are concerned that automakers will use the transition to electric vehicles to lower wages and reduce the number of unionized workers they employ.

The union wants to include the workers at battery factories owned partly or fully by automakers in their national contracts with the UAW. Fain has said the workers at battery factories are exposed to more dangerous working conditions yet are paid much less than union members at vehicle assembly plants.

The automakers have said that they cannot include battery factory workers in their national contracts because most of the plants are set up as joint ventures with foreign companies such as LG Energy Solution and SK On.

Among the three automakers, only GM has started producing batteries, at a plant it jointly owns with LG Energy Solution in Lordstown, Ohio. Ford is building three battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee with SK On.

Ford said this week that it would halt work on another battery plant, wholly owned by the automaker, that it had planned to build in Marshall, Michigan, because it was not certain that it could make products there at a competitive price. “We will decide how big or small Marshall will be,” Farley said, once Ford has a better idea of how much it will cost to make batteries there.

Farley said the start of production at battery plants would not result in the loss of UAW jobs elsewhere at Ford. The company employs 57,000 UAW members, more than at GM and Stellantis.

In a statement, Fain disputed Ford’s characterization of the talks. He said that the UAW was waiting for a response from the company to a “comprehensive proposal” the union made on Monday. Fain said the two sides were still “far apart” on retirement benefits and workers’ job security in the transition to electric vehicles. “Name the time and the place you want to settle a fair contract for our members, and we’ll be there,” Fain said.

GM CEO Mary Barra criticized the union for “upping the rhetoric and the theatrics” and said that UAW’s leaders had “no real intent to get to an agreement.”

“We need the UAW leadership at the bargaining table with the clear intent of reaching an agreement now,” she said in a statement. “For them to do otherwise is putting our collective future at stake.”

Stellantis said that it had made progress in the talks but that “gaps remain.” The company said it “has been intensely working with the UAW to find solutions to the issues that are of most concern to our employees while ensuring the company can remain competitive.”

The strategy of striking at only a limited number of locations but spreading the walkouts to plants owned by all three automakers is a break from UAW’s traditional approach of idling most or all operations at one company. In 2019, union workers went on strike at GM for 40 days before a tentative agreement was reached.

Fain has said the strategy is intended to keep the companies guessing about what parts of their operations would be hit next, in hopes of improving the union’s negotiating position. The first three plants hit by the strike make some of the automakers’ most profitable vehicles, including the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler.

A limited strike also dents the companies’ profits while limiting damage to their suppliers, local businesses and the national economy.

Expanding the strike also increases the financial cost to the union. It is paying striking workers $500 a week out of its $825 million strike fund.

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