UAW Strikes Redrawing Bargaining Parameters: Expert

Bargainers for General Motors, Ford, Stellantis and the UAW made little apparent progress over the weekend. GM and Ford announced additional layoffs of non-striking employees.

Joseph Szczesny

September 18, 2023

4 Min Read
UAW strikers Michigan Assembly (Getty)
UAW members picket outside Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI, one of the factories the union targeted for strike action when previous contracts expired.Getty Images

The UAW dramatically changed the dynamics of contract negotiations with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis when it decided not to target one company as it has in the past, a labor expert says.

Instead, the union launched targeted strikes against all three companies, shutting down key plants in Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri while maintaining pressure at the bargaining table. Automakers announced layoffs in response to the walkouts as negotiations continue to sputter.

David Jacobs of American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington, D.C., says that by negotiating with all three companies at the same time, UAW President Shawn Fain has scrapped the union’s traditional playbook where it focuses on only one company.

The change in strategy has set up competition among the three companies to present the UAW with an acceptable offer, Jacobs says, adding, “This is exactly what Fain wants.” The UAW president has set more 70 years of union precedents in this year’s bargaining, putting substantial pressure on company negotiators and executives.

“There are always doves and hawks in any set of advisers,” notes Jacobs. The doves look for compromise while the hawks insist on taking a hard line toward the union.

But Fain, with his emphasis on the “membership’s demands,” and what union members have lost over the years through concessions, has put the automakers on the defensive as the UAW began strikes at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI; Stellantis’ Jeep complex in Toledo, OH; and the GM truck assembly plant in Wentzville, MO.  

Fain has said the UAW could expand the strike, depending on the course of the ongoing negotiations. The walkouts began at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14.

Even as the automakers presented the UAW with similar offers on key issues – a 20% or 21.5% raise, a modest cost-of-living adjustment, a four-year grow-in period to modify the tiered wage system and substantial amounts of cash – it is likely one of them will break ranks and move to settle with the union, according to Jacobs.

The former University of Michigan-Flint professor says the company that elects to break ranks also gets to set the “pattern” breakthrough offer acceptable to the UAW. On the other hand, the three companies could stand together and resist union demands.

Whitmer UAW (Getty).jpg

Whitmer UAW (Getty)

Bargaining teams from GM and Ford have offered no signs a settlement is close.  Negotiators for Stellantis and the UAW agreed to something of an unofficial cooling-off period over the weekend despite pleas from President Joe Biden to continue bargaining.

“The UAW and the company agreed that talks will resume on Monday,” the company says in e-mail to Wards.

“Stellantis and the UAW have entered a critical phase of negotiations. Decisions made during this process will either enable our workers and our Company to thrive or will take us backward and endanger the long-term competitiveness of our Company, negatively impacting our workers and our communities.  

“Unfortunately, the UAW’s leadership has decided to call a strike and publicly misrepresent several key elements of our offer. We believe it is imperative to set the record straight,” Stellantis says, noting the company’s last offer included a 21% pay increase and a 26.7% pay increase for temporary employees. 

The UAW, however, says the company’s so-called modernization plan seeks to close or sell off 18 facilities and eliminate hundreds of jobs. Stellantis describes as misleading the attack by UAW Vice President Rich Boyer, who blasted the plan during a union rally in downtown Detroit.

“To be clear, the vast majority of this proposal is to modernize our operations and enable us to run our parts distribution centers more efficiently while preserving those jobs. In addition, it would protect our rights to consolidate or sell other underused real estate and facilities to lower our carbon footprint on the path to the Stellantis’ carbon net zero 2038 commitment,” Stellantis says.

GM Executive Vice President Gerald Johnson says the automaker has made four “compelling” offers to the UAW bargaining team. “If I learned anything in 2019, it’s that no one wins when we’re on strike,” says Johnson, referring to a 40-day work stoppage that cost GM an estimated $3.5 billion four years ago.

“We are confirming that negotiations continued through the weekend. But no comment beyond that,” says GM spokesman David Barnas. GM has cautioned it may idle 2,000 workers at its assembly plant in Fairfax, KS, which depends on stampings made in Wentzville.

The UAW says contract discussions continued through the weekend at Ford, where the first strike over a national contract since 1976 is disrupting both the company’s finances and the company culture, which has come to depend on a cooperative relationship with the UAW.

“As we have said all along, Ford has bet on the UAW more than any other company. We are committed to reaching an agreement with the UAW that rewards our workers and allows Ford to invest in the future,” says Mark Truby, Ford’s chief communications officer.

“We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do, so the membership is ready,” Fain says during an interview on CBS-TV’s Sunday Morning. “The membership is fed up, we’re fed up with falling behind. It’s been decades of falling behind. In especially this past decade, in the wealthiest times in the history of these companies.”


Subscribe to a WardsAuto newsletter today!
Get the latest automotive news delivered daily or weekly. With 5 newsletters to choose from, each curated by our Editors, you can decide what matters to you most.

You May Also Like