Just 24 hours before the contract deadline, the leader of the United Auto Workers said Wednesday that his members are prepared to strike against Detroit’s three automakers — first at a limited number of plants, with the strike expanding if talks remain stalled.
UAW President Sean Fine also ruled out any extension of the current four-year contracts with General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Stellantis after they expire Thursday night. He announced in a speech to union members via a live broadcast on Facebook that “September 14 is a deadline, not a reference point.”
He said the locations of the initial strikes would be “limited and targeted” and would be communicated to members on Thursday evening before Friday’s strike.
The tactic — a departure from the union’s usual strategy of staging an all-out strike against a single automaker chosen as a target — is intended to give UAW negotiators increased leverage in the talks, and keep manufacturers off balance.
“It will keep them guessing about what will happen next,” Mr. Fine said.
Hitting just a few plants would cripple automakers’ production while ensuring that a significant portion of the UAW’s 150,000 members at the three companies could continue to work and receive paychecks.
The union plans to pay striking workers $500 weekly and cover the cost of their health insurance premiums. The union has an $825 million strike fund, which will cover payments to workers in a full strike against the three companies for about three months.
In its initial proposal to companies, the union demanded a 40% pay increase over four years, on the basis that corporate CEO salaries had on average risen that much over the past four years. The union also sought regular adjustments to the cost of living that would push wages up in response to inflation.
The union is also seeking pensions for all workers, improved retiree benefits, shorter work hours and an end to a tiered wage system that starts new hires at about half the UAW’s top wage of $32 an hour.
The companies — each negotiating separately with the union — have put forward counterproposals for wage increases of about half what the union is demanding, according to Mr. Fine, and have done less to meet other demands.
Following Mr. Fine’s announcement, GM issued a statement that said in part: “We continue to bargain directly and in good faith with the UAW and have made additional aggressive offers.” “We are making progress in key areas.”
Declaring that “the future of our industry is at stake,” Ford said he was “ready to reach an agreement,” adding: “We must work creatively to solve difficult problems rather than plan strikes and public relations events.”
Stellantis said it submitted its final offer to the union on Tuesday. “Our focus remains on negotiating in good faith to get a tentative agreement on the table before tomorrow’s deadline,” the company said.
A week ago, the UAW filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, saying GM and Stellantis failed to respond to the union’s proposals and were negotiating unfairly.
Eric Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan who follows the auto industry, said a strike is very likely. “I think they can reach an agreement on wages, but these other issues are complex and cannot be resolved in the last 36 hours by splitting the difference,” he said.
Mr. Fine’s 40-minute speech was highlighted by quotes from Scripture. memories of his grandfather, who was also a union worker in the auto industry; And a lot of fiery language.
“For the last 40 years, the billionaire class has been taking everything and leaving everyone else to fight for the crumbs,” he shouted at one point. “We are not the problem. Corporate greed is the problem.”
He also showed a series of slides listing the union’s demands regarding wages, benefits, job security and other issues along with what he said were the companies’ responses. He compared his leadership team’s approach to negotiations with that of his predecessors who ousted him last year.
In the past, UAW leadership provided union members with little information on the status of negotiations until a tentative agreement was reached. Mr Fine said members were “fed up with the corporate and union philosophy” and that dealings with companies would be transparent to union members, “not behind closed doors as was the case in the past”.
The prospect of a widespread strike comes as automakers are reaping near-record profits but also grappling with the shift to electric vehicles. General Motors, Ford and Stellantis – Chrysler’s parent company – are investing tens of billions of dollars to develop new technologies and electric models, build new battery factories, and retool old ones.
The union is concerned about the potential for job losses as a result of this transition period. Electric cars — which don’t have components like transmissions or fuel systems — require fewer workers to produce.
The three companies are also building battery factories with partners that are not automatically covered by the UAW contract. Workers at a General Motors battery plant in Ohio that began production late last year voted to join the UAW and are now negotiating their own contract with the company.
Curtis Lee Contributed to reports.
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