Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

UAW leaders and automakers return to bargaining table

United Auto Workers members strike at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant on Saturday in Wayne, Mich.  (Bill Pugliano)
By Jeanne Whalen and Lauren Kaori Gurley Washington Post

As the United Auto Workers strike against the Big Three automakers entered a second day, the parties returned to the bargaining table Saturday.

The UAW said it had “reasonably productive conversations with Ford today.” The union is also meeting with GM on Saturday. Stellantis said it will meet with the UAW on Monday.

Some 12,700 UAW members – or roughly 8% of the union’s autoworkers – are on strike at a Stellantis plant in Toledo, Ohio, at a General Motors plant in Wentzville, Missouri, and at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan. In addition, 2,600 nonstriking GM and Ford workers will be temporarily laid off in the coming days, the auto companies warned, because those facilities depend on work from the plants that are on strike.

The union and companies remain far apart on pay and benefits in their weekslong contract negotiations, with the union demanding a 36% wage increase over four years. On Saturday, Stellantis, the parent company of Jeep and Chrysler, said it is offering a 21% cumulative wage increase over the course of a new contract, a proposal it made Thursday, before the strike started. Ford and GM have offered raises of 20%.

The UAW continues to keep its strike plans secret. When asked Friday night whether it might strike at more plants, UAW President Shawn Fain said that depended on the outcome of negotiations.

“As things progress or don’t progress, we’ll make decisions as a board or as a union, and we’ll take the next step,” Fain said after a rally in Detroit late Friday. “It could be in a day, it could be in week.”

In a statement Saturday morning, Fain said the union will make sure laid-off workers “will not go without an income.”

He did not elaborate, but the 600 laid-off workers at the idled Ford stamping plant in Wayne have been informed by their local UAW leadership that they can sign up for the $500 weekly strike benefit that the union is paying striking workers, according to Mike Kanowski, 67, a union representative for his plant and a Ford autoworker for 49 years.

Asked whether he was worried about the temporary layoffs lasting a long time, Kanowski said: “Nah. We’re all on board. We’ve been shafted over the past few contracts.”

Fain accused the companies of laying off workers to “put the squeeze on our members to settle for less.”

GM and Ford said the layoffs were a direct consequence of the strike, which is depriving nonstriking plants of materials. The laid-off workers will not be eligible for the usual unemployment benefits the companies pay when they idle any of their plants, both companies said. GM said this was because they are working under an expired contract.

“We have said, repeatedly, that nobody wins in a strike, and that effects go well beyond our employees on the plant floor and negatively impact our customers, suppliers and the communities where we do business,” GM said in a statement Friday.

It’s the first time the union has launched a strike of any size on all three companies at the same time. The last national auto strike was against GM in 2019.

The striking Stellantis plant in Toledo makes Jeep Wranglers and Gladiators. GM’s Wentzville plant makes Chevrolet Colorado trucks and Express vans as well as GMC Canyon trucks and Savana vans. Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne makes Ranger trucks and Bronco SUVs.

Stellantis said on Saturday its last offer included a proposal to salvage jobs at a large factory in Belvidere, Ill., that it had shuttered earlier this year, laying off 1,200 workers. But the offer was only on the table until the strike began, Mark Stewart, Stellantis’ chief operating officer, told reporters during a call, the Detroit News and others reported.

In comments later Saturday, Fain said this showed Stellantis was using Belvidere workers as a “bargaining chip.”

The UAW president has called the companies’ wage offers inadequate after years of sharp inflation and fat corporate profits. He also points to the large pay increases the auto CEOs received during the course of the autoworkers’ just-expired contract, which was signed in 2019.

GM chief executive Mary Barra’s compensation, including bonus and stock awards, grew by 34% between 2019 and 2022, to $29 million last year. Ford’s CEO pay grew by 21% over that period, to $21 million last year. Stellantis, headquartered in the Netherlands and formed through a 2021 merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot SA, didn’t exist when the contract began. Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares earned about $25 million last year, including long-term incentives.

Full-time UAW workers earn between $18 and $32 an hour, along with profit-sharing payments and other bonuses. During the four years of the just-expired contract, full-timers were “eligible” for total profit-sharing payments of $44,700, Stellantis said Saturday. Ford says its average full-timer received $75,000 of profit-sharing payments over the past 10 years.

Temporary workers earn lower hourly wages, around $16 to $19 an hour, and aren’t eligible for profit-sharing or other bonuses. And they often get stuck in temp status for years. The companies have proposed raising their starting wages to $20 an hour. Ford has proposed converting all existing temps to full-time status within 90 days.

The automakers argue that they are offering better wage increases and benefits than they have in decades. Ford calls its offer the best in 80 years. Barra on Friday told CBS News that the company’s offer is “a record from a gross-wage perspective in our 115-year history.”

But she said GM cannot meet all of the union’s demands while remaining profitable. Those demands include a 32-hour workweek, defined-benefit pensions for all workers instead of 401(k) accounts, and company-financed health care in retirement.

High spirits

Meanwhile, outside the Bronco and Wrangler plant on Saturday afternoon, striking workers were in high spirits, buoyed by a stream of support. Drivers on the main thoroughfare, Michigan Avenue, pumped their car horns. Relatives, friends, local businesses and even strangers dropped off pizza, water, fried chicken and cookies. Someone set up a barbecue.

Justin Bowden, 39, a Ford frame line worker and father of four from Detroit, said he signed up to work at the Michigan plant less than a year ago because as he was “under the impression this was a good job, seeing my father work at Chrysler when I was young.” His father was able to buy his own house and several rental properties.

“Back then, it was better,” concluded Bowden, a renter who makes $18 an hour and works a second job stocking shelves at Dollar Tree. “Right now, it’s not too good. You have to have two jobs.”

- – -

Gurley reported from Detroit.