Members of the United Auto Workers union overwhelmingly approved possible strikes at the nation’s three unionized automakers next month, as the union tries to win back many of the concessions it lost more than 15 years ago and protect members during the transition to electric vehicles in the years ahead.
The union said 97% of those participating in the strike authorization voted in favor of possible strikes at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, the company that sells vehicles under the Ram, Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler names. There are 145,000 UAW members at the three companies.
“Our union’s membership is clearly fed up with living paycheck to paycheck while the corporate elite and billionaire class continue to make out like bandits,” said UAW President Shawn Fain.
However, the vote does not mean there will be a strike at any of the three automakers. It just empowers union leadership to call a strike if they can’t reach a deal with management before a contract expiration. It is a common negotiating tactic in advance of a strike deadline. Even with a recent increase in strikes across the US, most labor negotiations conclude with an agreement and not a strike.
The companies all issued statements saying they are committed to reaching deals with the union without a strike.
“The discussions between the company and the UAW’s bargaining team continue to be constructive and collaborative,” said Stellantis’ statement. “In our view, a strike does not benefit anyone – our customers, our dealers, the community and, most importantly, our employees. ”
“We look forward to working with the UAW on creative solutions during this time when our dramatically changing industry needs a skilled and competitive workforce more than ever,” said Ford in its statement.
“We continue to bargain in good faith each day to support our team members, our customers, the community and the business,” said GM in its statement.
President Joe Biden said Friday he is “concerned” about the possible strike, as he weighed in on negotiations while speaking to the press in Lake Tahoe, California.
“I’ve been talking to UAW, obviously I’m concerned,” Biden said. “I think that there should be a circumstance where the jobs that are being displaced and replaced with new jobs, first choice should be to the UAW members who had the jobs, and the salary should be commensurate.”
The White House has so far taken a neutral stance on the talks, so Biden’s calls for commensurate salaries are notable as they support the union’s stance on higher wages.
Fain and the UAW are talking up an ambitious set of goals in this year’s negotiations. The UAW wants to get back contract provisions it gave up in the 2007 negotiations, as the companies were all reporting massive losses and GM and Chrysler were less than two years away from bankruptcies and federal bailouts.
Among those earlier concessions was the end of a traditional pension plan. New hires since 2007 were given only a 401(k) plan, not a retirement plan that paid them a set amount of money every month they lived after retiring. New hires also lost retiree health care coverage. And many new hires are paid at a lower wage scale than veteran employees, at least initially.
The union also wants a return of cost-of-living adjustments to protect workers from inflation.
In addition, Fain has voiced support for current pay to increase about 40% over the life of the contract, which he said would be comparable to the raises the automakers’ chief executives have received in recent years. He has voiced support for a four-day, 32-hour work week without a drop in pay.
He also wants protections against job losses and plant closings, especially with automakers announcing plans to shift their product lineups from traditional gasoline powered cars to electric vehicles.
EVs can need about one-third fewer labor hours to assemble than gas-powered cars require due to having fewer parts, since complex engines and transmissions aren’t needed in an EV. Many of the jobs building EVs will be at plants that are recently opened or are under construction to build the EV batteries.
But almost all of those plants are owned by joint ventures with battery makers such as LG and Samsung. The workers at those plants are not going to be employees of GM, Ford or Stellantis. And the plants either are paying or are expected to pay far less than UAW members make at the assembly, engine and transmission plants covered by these three contracts.
The UAW is demanding that the automakers agree to what it is calling a “just transition” to EVs, having jobs at its battery plants be comparable to UAW wages at the automakers. And Thursday, the union reached a tentative agreement to significantly raise the wages of workers at the battery plant in Warren, Ohio, operated by the joint venture GM and LG.