UAW union outlines lofty demands ahead of critical negotiations with Detroit automakers

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United Auto Workers members on strike picket outside General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant in Detroit on Sept. 25, 2019, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, far left.

Michael Wayland | CNBC

DETROIT — The United Auto Workers union appears ready to take a hard line when it comes to national negotiations this year with the Detroit automakers, warning of strikes or work stoppages if needed.

UAW leaders publicly laid out their top bargaining issues Wednesday night, including reinstatement of a cost-of-living adjustment that was eliminated during the Great Recession; stronger job security; and the end of a grow-in, or tiered, pay system that has members earning different wages and benefits.

UAW President Shawn Fain said the “union will not accept any concessions” from General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis — a lofty mission in such negotiations.

Contract talks between the union and automakers usually begin in earnest in July ahead of mid-September expirations of the previous four-year agreements. Typically, one of the three automakers is the lead, or target, company that the union selects to negotiate with first and the others extend their deadlines. However, Fain has said this year may be different, without going into specific details.

Union leaders, led by Fain, are largely newly elected officers who ran on platforms of standing up to companies and reforming the organization following a yearslong federal corruption scandal that partially involved prior negotiations.

UAW leaders also discussed the record profits of the Detroit automakers, collectively known as the Big Three, in recent years, while laying out the possibility of a strike if their demands are not met.

GM and Stellantis declined to comment on the town hall. Ford did not immediately respond.

UAW President Shawn Fain chairs the 2023 Special Elections Collective Bargaining Convention in Detroit, March 27, 2023.

Rebecca Cook | Reuters

“I want to be clear on this, and I know this might sound crazy, but the choice of whether or not we go on strike is up to the Big Three,” said UAW Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock during a virtual union town hall that was broadcast online. “We are clear about what we want.”

Labor strikes can be costly and deplete vehicle inventories. A 40-day strike against GM during the last round of negotiations four years ago cost GM about $3.6 billion in 2019, including $2.6 billion in earnings before interest and taxes during the fourth quarter of that year.

Strikes could take several forms: a national strike, where all workers under the contract cease working, or targeted work stoppages at certain plants over local contract issues.

The firm demands, strike rhetoric and town hall — titled “Back in the fight: Our generation’s defining moment at the Big Three” — buck historical union practices. Past union leaders have delivered similar messaging but not typically as confrontationally or publicly ahead of the talks.

“Here’s what you can expect from us: No more bargaining in total secrecy behind closed doors,” Fain said Wednesday. “We’re going to be organizing national days of action in plants all around the country … showing the companies that we’re not playing around, that we mean business.”

Wall Street analysts have noted the possibility of a strike as well as increased labor costs as headwinds this year for the Detroit automakers.

John Deere UAW workers reach deal with company

The transition to EVs was another main point of discussion Wednesday, specifically around job security — as the vehicles are expected to require less labor — and around organizing critical U.S. battery plants that are in early production or under construction.

Fain also called out the White House without specifically naming President Joe Biden. The union last month said it would withhold a reendorsement of Biden until the UAW’s concerns about the auto industry’s transition to EVs are addressed.

“We need to let everyone know — from the White House to the statehouse to our local labor council — that if you stand with us, we will stand with you,” Fain said Wednesday. “Our fight is everyone’s fight.”

Speaking in front of a backdrop of American-made vehicles and a UAW sign, President Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, speaks about new proposals to protect U.S. jobs during a campaign stop in Warren, Michigan, Sept. 9, 2020.

Leah Millis | Reuters

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