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Stateside Podcast: UAW faces-off with the Big Three

FILE - United Auto Workers members walk in the Labor Day parade in Detroit, Sept. 2, 2019. The new president of the United Auto Workers gave his strongest warning yet Friday, June 16, 2023, that the union is preparing for strikes against Detroit’s three automakers. In a Facebook Live appearance, Shawn Fain said the union is in a strong position to make major gains in talks with Stellantis, Ford and General Motors. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
Paul Sancya/AP

The contract negotiations for the United Auto Workers union and the Big Three automakers are set to begin today, Thursday, July 13th. As the auto industry restructures in the age of electrification, the auto workers worry about how they are going to be affected in this transition. Kalea Hall, a business and autos reporter for the Detroit News joined Stateside to discuss what is at stake.

The negotiations

Hall said that this upcoming set of negotiations is important for both the Big Three automakers and the auto workers. She said that the automakers are trying to secure a competitive future as they invest billions of dollars in electric vehicles and want to maintain their labor costs. However, the UAW union feels frustrated because they feel like they've given up a lot since the bankruptcies during the 2008 recession.

“We have the battery plants that have a lower-paid workforce,” said Hall. “We have one battery plant that is partially General Motors-owned where they make basically half of what a worker at a traditional GM facility would make.”

The UAW has a new strong leadership that intends to secure a stable future for its members. UAW president Shawn Fain has a different and direct approach going about these negotiations as he refers to the Big Three as “enemies” during the bargaining convention. Hall was unsurprised at this.

After years of corruption... They want to set the tone that they are not going to back down," said Hall. “They don't consider the companies their friends based on the things that the companies have done.”

The automakers have shut down plants in the past. Hall said that according to the UAW, they said they've given things back when they have not. In response, the UAW has been active on social media, using Facebook to host live events with members.

“They're very aggressive,” said Hall. “It's more public than I think that we've seen, ever.”

In a recentFacebook Live, Fain said, “I'm not shaking hands with any CEOs until they do right by our members and we fix the broken status quo with the Big Three. The members have to come first.”

What the UAW wants

Hall said that the workers' top priorities are reinstituting cost of living adjustments and ending the tiered compensation structure. The tiered wage structure pays employees who work a certain number of years more. As the cost of living increases, this system worries auto workers. She said that General Motors' temps come in at around $16 per hour, and two years later they are converted to permanent employees where they make about $19.

They don't want to see that anymore,” said Hall. ”At the end of the day, you're building the same product so... this shouldn't be a difference in pay.”

Threats of a strike

The UAW begins negotiations today with Stellantis. On Friday, they will start with Ford Motors, and on Tuesday, with General Motors. The contracts between the UAW and the Big Three expire on September 14.

“If they don't have a contract by then... they can vote to extend or they can go on strike,” said Hall.

The UAW has said that they will go on strike if the Big Three do not meet their demands.

“The Big Three is our strike target. And whether or not there is a strike, it's up to Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis because they know what our priorities are. We've been clear,” said Fain in a Facebook Live.

The last auto workers' strike was in 2019 and lasted 40 days costing GM $3.6 billion. Hall spoke to an autoworker who said they are prepared and willing to go twice as long.

“It's going to be an intense three months,” said Hall.

Check out Hall's coverage on the UAW.

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Tessa is a senior student studying Broadcast Journalism and Theatre at Michigan State University and she joined the Stateside team as a production intern in June 2023.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.