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    Wednesday, February 21, 2024

    Auto strikes are expected to expand Friday with no deal in sight

    United Auto Workers walk the picket line during the auto workers strike Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, at the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex in Toledo, Ohio. (Jeremy Wadsworth/The Blade via AP)

    The United Auto Workers and the Detroit's Big Three automakers spent Thursday in negotiations as union leaders warned that an ongoing labor strike could spread to new facilities as soon as midday Friday.

    An expanded work stoppage over wages and benefits for some 150,000 autoworkers could exacerbate disruptions to an industry that makes up about 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

    Close to 13,000 UAW members walked off the job Friday at three plants - a General Motors plant, a Ford plant and a Stellantis plant. The union is seeking a 36 percent wage increase over four years and more job protections as the industry transitions toward producing electric vehicles, a shift that potentially includes plant closures. Automakers are offering raises of around 20 percent.

    "We're going to keep hitting the company where we need to, when we need to," UAW President Shawn Fain said in a video posted late Monday. If there is not "serious progress" by noon Friday, Fain added, more workers will be called on to join the strike.

    Stellantis, which owns Jeep and Chrysler, made a counteroffer to the UAW on Wednesday, the details of which have not been released and which the union said it is reviewing. It marks the first offer from any of the companies since the strike began Friday.

    Meanwhile, an additional 190 UAW members at a Mercedes axle supplier in Tuscaloosa, Ala., went on strike Wednesday. Their strike is separate from the Big Three work stoppages but centers on similar issues, such as raising pay, improving health-care benefits and scrapping employment tiers.

    Fain has not said which plants would be affected next - the union's stated strategy is to "keep the companies guessing." Rather than striking all of the companies' plants at once, the UAW has taken the unconventional approach of striking at a few plants while other union employees continue working. This approach has allowed the union to tap its $825 million strike fund more slowly. The union is paying striking workers $500 a week out of its strike fund.

    Another sticking point for the union has been the tiered pay structure, adopted during the 2008 financial crisis. Under this model, newer employees earn less in wages and receive fewer benefits than more-veteran workers. And many can be stuck in "temporary" status for years, making it difficult for them to move up the pay scale.

    The union is demanding that all workers reach top pay after 90 days on the job. The companies have made some concessions, offering to shorten the time it takes workers to reach the top wage rate and proposing to lift starting wages for temp workers by 20 percent, to $20 an hour.

    Leaders at GM and Ford have been pushing back against messaging from the union on companies' offers. GM President Mark Reuss, in an op-ed published Wednesday by the Detroit Free Press, rejected the UAW'S claims that with record profits, GM can afford to adopt the union's demands, calling them "untenable" as the company transitions to "an all-EV future."

    GM spokesperson David Barnas said in a statement Thursday that the company is "continuing to bargain in good faith with the union to reach an agreement as quickly as possible."

    Ford said it has given significant ground in the talks and remains focused on getting a deal. Beyond 20 percent raises over four years, Ford is offering some cost-of-living adjustments to wages, increased contributions to workers' retirement savings and more paid time off.

    As the strike moved into a seventh day, the companies appeared to be issuing more temporary layoffs, following announcements of layoffs of some workers at Ford and GM facilities last week at plants not on strike. GM confirmed on Wednesday that it was idling its Fairfax Assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan., which employs roughly 2,000 workers. The company attributed the layoffs to a shortage of product that is typically supplied by the company's Wentzville, Mo., plant, which is on strike.

    Also, Stellantis said Wednesday that more than 350 additional layoffs could take place at its Jeep facilities "as a consequence of strike action," including 68 employees confirmed to be laid off at the Toledo Machining Plant in Perrysburg, Ohio, because of limited storage space. The company also said it anticipates similar layoffs at facilities in Kokomo, Ind.

    GM and Ford have said that workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance, but the UAW has been offering laid-off workers $500 a week in strike fund benefits.

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