The pickets of striking U.S. auto factories have swirled this morning to hear the leader of their union, United Auto Workers (UAW). Shawn Fain has addressed the workers through Facebook to announce the extension to new production plants of the strike, which until now affected only three factories in a historic strike in which for the first time challenges the three giants of the motor of Detroit (Michigan). Fain has asked workers at 38 General Motors and Stellantis factories in 20 different states to walk off the job. It leaves Ford out of the new strikes, arguing the progress in the negotiations of the new collective agreement. At the gates of the Jeep (Stellantis) plant in Toledo, Ohio, the announcement has been received in silence, without a single shout or applause among the dozens of striking workers who listened to their leader around a loudspeaker.
"We will close the parts distribution centers until these two companies come to their senses and come to the negotiation," Fain said in his message, in which he stressed that the strike has the support of the majority of citizens. In the case of Ford, the only plant that has stopped so far, in Wayne, outside Detroit, remains on strike. "To be clear, we're not done with Ford. We have serious problems to solve, but we want to recognize that Ford is serious about reaching an agreement," said the union leader.
Fain has designed a gradual, surgical strategy, in which he is willing to give new twists depending on how the negotiations evolve. In doing so, it preserves the $845 million strike fund with which it gives $500 weekly pay to those who leave their jobs. In addition, it distributes punishments based on how things are going at the negotiating table. About 13,000 employees of the UAW's roughly 150,000 members among the big three groups work at the first three plants called to strike. Now, the strike extends to tens of thousands of people and affects workplaces in much of the country.
The bottlenecks generated by the strike in some factories have caused companies to undertake layoffs of workers who have run out of workload. That has increased tension, but it is part of the union strategy. These workers, not being on strike, are entitled in principle to unemployment benefits without emptying the resistance fund.
The UAW union has demands for wage increases (40% in four years, although it has shown signs of being willing to accept something less), but also others that have to do with the double salary scale (in which new workers earn much less than those with more seniority), with health coverage and pensions. In addition, there is a battle for the workers of the new battery and electric car plants to also be unionized workers, with salaries comparable to those of now in the sector. They also demand a 32-hour workweek with 40 pay, although that demand seems destined to sacrifice on the road to an agreement.
The companies, for their part, have stocks that allow them to endure a few weeks without shortages and reject union proposals on the grounds that they would not be competitive against foreign manufacturers (some with plants in the United States) or Tesla, which has a huge advantage of cost efficiency and whose workers are not unionized.
Four years ago, in the negotiation of the new collective agreements there was only a strike at General Motors. The workers were left with the feeling that that strike was closed falsely, with wage increases that seemed appropriate, but were revealed to be derisory in a context of skyrocketing inflation like the one that the United States has experienced for three years.
The two sides are preparing for a long conflict, but wishing it would be short. The balance is not simple. The Detroit giants have higher wage costs than their competitors, but they rightly complain that the bonanza of recent years, with sharp increases in sales and profits, has not reached them. The multimillion-dollar salaries of managers ignite the spirits of workers who aspire to remain or rejoin the middle class. Many have been working in their companies for decades and realize that they have suffered a wage devaluation in relative terms that is even more acute in the case of new hires.
The Detroit News reported Thursday that a spokesman for Fain wrote in a private group chat on X, formerly Twitter, that union negotiators intended to inflict "recurring reputational damage and operational chaos" on automakers. "If we can keep them injured for months they won't know what to do."
Ford and GM have reacted with criticism of the union's alleged bad faith. "It is now clear that the UAW leadership has always intended to cause disruption for months, regardless of the harm it causes to its members and their communities," GM said in a statement.
A Ford spokesman, Mark Truby, called the messages "disappointing, to say the least, considering what's at stake for employees, businesses and this region," he said.
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