UAW Strike: Union orders 7,000 more workers to walk off the job

DETROIT (AP) — The United Auto Workers union on Friday expanded strikes against Detroit automakers, ordering 7,000 workers to walk off the job in Illinois and Michigan.

It’s the second time the union has expanded the walkout at three assembly plants before two weeks ago to include a Ford plant in Chicago and a General Motors assembly plant near Lansing.

Union President Sean Fine told workers in a video appearance that the strikes escalated because Ford and GM refused to “make meaningful progress” in ongoing contract talks. Jeep maker Stellandis was spared a third round of strikes.

Ford and GM backed off as a war of words intensified with the union. Ford accused the UAW of holding a contract for union representation mainly at electric vehicle battery plants, most of which are joint ventures with a Korean manufacturer.

“There is still time to reach an agreement and avoid disaster,” Ford said in a statement, adding that the strikes are beginning to affect weakened companies that make parts for factories hit by walkouts.

GM’s manufacturing chief said the union was “calling strikes only for headlines, not for real progress.”

The GM plant in Delta Township, near Lansing, makes large crossover SUVs such as the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave. A nearby metal parts stamping plant will remain open with 300 workers, Fine said.

The Chicago Ford plant makes the Ford Explorer and Explorer police interceptors, as well as the Lincoln Aviator SUV. The Explorer Interceptor is the best-selling police vehicle in the country.

He said union negotiators are still talking with all three companies and are confident they can reach agreements.

Stellandis made significant progress minutes before appearing on Facebook Live by agreeing to unspecified cost-of-living raises, the right not to walk the picket line and the right to strike against plant closings.

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Raneal Edwards, a longtime GM employee at a Lansing-area factory, said he was “shocked but happy” to hear his plant would join the strike.

“I feel like they don’t understand that it’s about more than pay,” Edwards said. “It’s about safety in our jobs.”

Edwards said he believes the UAW’s strategy of slowly adding more plants will work. “I like it because it keeps us on our toes. Nobody knows what’s next,” she said.

But in a memo to workers Friday, Edwards’ boss, GM Manufacturing Chief Gerald Johnson, said the company had yet to receive a counteroffer from union leaders to the Sept. 21 economic proposal.

Ford CEO Jim Farley accused the union of holding the deal hostage to union representation of workers at future electric vehicle battery factories.

Farley said in a conference call with industry analysts that higher wages at battery plants will make Ford’s electric vehicles more expensive than Tesla and other rivals.

“Record the contract? No problem. Mortgaging our future? That’s a big problem. We would never do that,” Farley said.

Farley said Ford’s battery plants were not built, mostly joint ventures with a South Korean battery maker. “The workers are not yet organized by the UAW because they haven’t been hired in years and won’t be,” Farley said.

Fein later accused Farley of lying about the talks and said the union had made a counteroffer to Ford on Monday but had not heard back. The union is far from Ford on economic issues such as defined-benefit pensions for workers hired after 2007 and health insurance for retirees. Workers hired after 2007 receive a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

But “job security in the EV transition” remains an issue, Fine said.

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Automakers have long said they are open to raises, but they fear a costly deal would raise the price of vehicles, which are often more expensive than models made in non-union U.S. plants run by foreign automakers in the South.

The union counters that labor costs are only 4% to 5% of the cost of a vehicle, while companies make billions in profits and can afford huge salaries.

Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said the extended strikes show both sides are digging in for a protracted war.

In a note to investors, Ives said President Joe Biden’s administration is watching union demands collide with a push for cleaner electric vehicles. Biden, who has described himself as the most union-friendly president in history, traveled to the Detroit area on Tuesday to picket with workers at a GM parts warehouse.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump visited the Detroit area this week for a rally at a non-union truck parts maker.

Ives wrote that the incentives in the companies’ catalog will add $3,000 to $5,000 to the price of the average electric vehicle that is shipped to consumers. Such costs could “ultimately be a torpedo to the future business models” of automakers, he wrote.

Electric vehicle battery plants are a big issue for the future of the union. Some industry executives, including Farley, say EVs require 40% fewer workers to build because they have fewer moving parts. So the union wants to organize the battery plants and win higher wages, so the displaced workers have somewhere to go, especially those working on combustion engines and transmissions.

Other industry officials, including GM CEO Mary Barra, say there will be enough jobs for everyone when the industry moves away from gasoline vehicles.

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The automakers’ last known wage concessions were about 20% over the life of the four-year contract, slightly more than half of what the union had sought. Other contract improvements are also on the table, including cost-of-living increases, restructuring defined-benefit pensions for newly hired workers and an end to wage tiers within the union.

Soon after the deal, the union went on strike on September 15.

The UAW initially targeted one assembly plant from each company. Then last week it added 38 parts distribution centers run by GM and Stellantis. Ford was left out of the expansion because of negotiations with the union at the time.

The union has structured its walkouts to allow companies to make pickup trucks and large SUVs, their best-selling and most profitable vehicles. It previously closed assembly plants in Missouri, Ohio and Michigan that make midsize pickup trucks, commercial vans and midsize SUVs, all of which are profitable but not as profitable as larger vehicles.

The new strikes against GM and Ford target crossover SUVs, which are big moneymakers for both companies.

In the past, the union chose a company as a strike target and reached a contract agreement with that company as a model for other companies.

But this year Fain introduced a new strategy aimed at a smaller number of facilities at all three automakers.

About 25,000, or about 17%, of the union’s 146,000 workers at the three automakers are on strike, allowing them to secure $825 million in strike funds before September 14.

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Koenig reports from Dallas. Associated Press writer Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan contributed to this report.

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