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US auto workers’ union boss says strikes will continue in bid for better offers from companies

Shawn Fain said Stellantis and GM have made wage offers that matched Ford’s 23% over the life of a four year contract, but insisted that the companies can go further

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain addresses the audience during a rally in support of striking UAW members in Detroit, Michigan, September 15, 2023.REBECCA COOK (REUTERS)

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain said Friday that while Detroit’s automakers have increased their wage and benefit offers, he believes the union can gain more if it holds out longer in contract talks.

In a Facebook Live appearance, Fain didn’t announce any more factories to add to those that have been on strike for up to five weeks. But he warned that the UAW could announce such an expansion of its strikes at any time, depending on how much progress it makes in its negotiations with the automakers.

In the past 24 hours, Fain said, Stellantis and GM have made wage offers that matched Ford’s 23% over the life of a four year contract. But, speaking in his characteristic sharp tones, the union president insisted that the companies can go further. “We’ve got cards left to play, and they’ve got money left to spend,” he said.

Arguing that Ford “pretends they can’t afford what we’re asking for,” Fain noted that the company has complained about the union’s walkout at the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, which has had to shut down. That plant is the largest and most profitable Ford factory in the world. “We took their biggest plant out and they haven’t come back with anything new,” he said.

Though Fain said the UAW will make a push to secure more generous offers from the automakers, he addressed union members who have said they’re ready to vote on the deals. Fain asserted that the companies are trying to divide the union.

“They just want to wait us out,” he said. “They want to divide. They want fear and they want uncertainty. What we have is solidarity.” While Fain said the companies keep touting that they’ve made record offers to the UAW, he said they’re insufficient to make up for how much ground workers have lost during the past two decades. Each time the automakers make an offer, Fain said, they insist it’s the best they can do, only to return days later with a better offer.

“What that should tell you,” Fain said, is that “there’s room to move.” In a statement, GM said it made an offer Friday with “substantial movement in all key areas in an effort to reach a final agreement with the UAW and get our people back to work.”

Stellantis said it and the union have made progress to narrow gaps on significant issues “that will bring immediate financial gains and job security for our employees.” The company said it’s focused on resolving the issues as soon as possible.

Ford has said that, among the three automakers, its contract offers to the UAW have been the most generous. “We know that our UAW employees are hurting in this prolonged strike because of lost wages and lost profit sharing,” Ford’s statement said. “We’re eager to conclude these negotiations with a contract that meaningfully improves their lives and provides a strong future for everyone.”

All three companies have said they cannot increase labor costs to the point where they wouldn’t have enough to invest in new vehicles and factories. GM said its offer raises pay for most of the work force to $40.39 an hour, or about $84,000 a year, by the end of a four-year contract. That’s a 23% increase over the $32.32 an hour that most factory workers earn. Compounded annually, it’s 25%.

The company also said it reinstated cost-of-living raises for many employees in the first year of the contract, boosting the pay increase above 30% by September 2027. Workers gave up the inflation-fighting raises in 2009, when the companies were in financial danger. GM previously has offered to contribute 8% of a worker’s salary into 401(k) defined-contribution plans, less than the 9.5% offered by its two competitors.

The UAW has been seeking 36% raises over the four years and a traditional defined-benefit pension plan for workers hired after 2007. Fain said GM refused to match Ford’s offer to give workers the right to strike over plant closings. Nor have GM and Stellantis matched Ford on restoring cost-of-living increases to 2009 levels.

Stephen McCray, one of the striking GM workers at a factory in Wentzville, Missouri, near St. Louis, said the company’s latest offer seems appealing. But he suspects GM might wait a year to grant cost-of-living increases.

A former temporary worker, McCray said he’s concerned that under an agreement, part-time temps won’t be converted to full-time workers. That said, McCray said he thinks workers would ratify the contract, given the raises, cost-of-living pay and other benefits, if Fain tells workers it’s the best deal he could get.

But Adrian Mitchell, a striking worker at GM’s parts warehouse in Van Buren Township, Michigan, said he thinks the proposed increases in contributions to 401(k) plans and payments for retiree health care plans aren’t big enough. “I think he should maybe fight a little more at the table to try to get a few more things,” Mitchell said.

It’s not clear just when Fain may call on more workers to strike and join the 34,000 already off the job at six vehicle assembly plants and 38 parts distribution warehouses.

Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University, suggested that in order to achieve a union settlement with all three companies, Ford and Stellantis will have to join GM in including future electric-vehicle battery factories in the UAW national agreement. That would essentially ensure that the factories of the future would be represented by the union, a key point for the UAW.

Last week, before GM agreed to the battery plant provisions, the union had threatened to close a GM factory in Arlington, Texas, which makes highly profitable large SUVs. The union’s strikes at targeted plants at each company began on Sept. 15 and are nearing the start of their sixth week.

The UAW also is seeking pension increases for retirees, an end to varying tiers of wages for workers and other items. GM’s offer appears to end the tiers in the last year of a new contract.

The strikes started with one assembly plant from each compan, and the union later added the parts warehouses, then one assembly plant each from Ford and GM. Last week the union made a surprise move, escalating the strikes by adding a huge Ford pickup truck and SUV plant in Louisville, Kentucky. About 23% of the union’s 146,000 members employed by the three automakers are on strike.

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