Even with the threat of a recession hanging over the U.S. economy, the United Auto Workers union believes it is in the strongest bargaining position in years as it prepares for contract negotiations with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis this summer and fall.
Delegates leaving the union’s Special Bargaining Convention in Detroit this week, including those who once campaigned for his opponent during the long, bruising and narrowly decided election for the UAW presidency, gave Shawn Fain credit for his emphasis on unity and taking a hard line on the upcoming negotiations.
Delegates applaud Fain’s militancy
Local union leaders from UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, Michigan pressing to make Ford the UAW target this year, distributed pins with the slogan, “I Don’t Want to Strike But I Will,” in the center. That tough talk was encircled by a partial list of demands the union will present to company negotiators such as “Improved Standard of Living, Vacation Time Off, No Plant Closings, COLA, and Retirement Health Care.”
While the list doesn’t account for everything, the sentiment is clear. Plenty of union members are ready to rally behind it.
“The UAW is a democracy. The election is over and it’s time to move on,” said Rick Kotelis, the chairman at the big Ford assembly complex outside Detroit, which is the heart of the company’s truck business. He added the local is pleased Fain made a commitment to visit the local soon and said he liked the message the union’s new top leader delivered throughout the convention.
“Our members have very high expectations, and rightfully so because they have sacrificed a lot,” Fain said on the first day of the convention, to make companies such as General Motors, Ford and Stellantis prosperous.
“We’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our one and only true enemy: multibillion dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share,” Fain added.
Fain later said during a meeting with reformers, “These corporations have been flush for years. The time has come for the UAW to chart a ‘new direction,’” added Fain, who also told the delegates he believes the UAW must emphasize militancy rather than cooperation.
The divisions created by the first successful challenge in more than 70 years to the union’s old guard were clearly on display during the three-day convention.
The reformers, buoyed by young, talented organizers from UAW Locals at major universities such as Harvard, Columbia, New York University and the University of California with advanced degrees in law, physics and computer science, now hold a slim but clear majority of the union International Executive Board, following the first direct election of the top officers by UAW members.
Convention delegates chosen by a less formal process tended to favored Curry, the incumbent. While Fain won only narrowly, other members of the reform slate swept every contested executive post by decisive margins throughout the union’s traditional base in the industrial Midwest.
Divisions fade as change sets in
But the divisions were already beginning to fade by the convention’s third day, when cheers for Fain’s tough, militant language increased and Chuck Browning, the UAW vice president in charge of the union’s Ford Department and the top vote getter among candidates on the Curry slate, told delegates to put aside their differences and face the common foe — “the boss.”
“There is only one agenda on this board,” Browning said. “It is the membership’s agenda.”
“To our enemies, who are not in this room; to the rich and powerful that want to attack labor; to the employers that want to make profits at our expense and through the exploitation of workers; let the world hear, we’re united when it comes to our enemies and our bargaining. We’re sticking together and taking on ‘the boss.’”
The unity theme carried through the entire week.
“We’re a family,” noted Dan Vincente, the new executive board member for western New York and Pennsylvania, who took leave from his job as a machine operator in a factory run by Swedish maker of marine equipment to join the UAW board. “I come from Philadelphia. My brother and I used to fight all the time. But if you attack him, you and I are to going to be throwing hands. That’s what family means.”
Automakers in transition
For their part, the automakers will have to argue their impressive profits, which have been boosted by major prices increases and tight inventories, must be protected at all costs to help finance new investments in electric vehicles.
Only last week, Ford said it expects Model e, the company’s EV business unit, to lose $3 billion this year, and GM has only delivered relatively small number of EVs to customers while it expects to invest $35 billion in EVs by the end of 2026.
Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares has said repeatedly the transition to EVs will be enormously expensive and commercially harrowing if the EV fails to emerge.
But there is also an expectation among Detroit’s executives, such as GM’s Chair Mary Barra, success in EVs will send stock prices soaring. A jump in share prices also could dramatically increase the value of stock options built into executive compensation packages.
Union resolutions during the bargaining convention demanded a variety of things, in addition to higher wages, such as more training for union members and investment in union plants. Fain, however, also indicated he is prepared to go even further, insisting the new battery plants be covered by the master agreement at GM, Ford and Stellantis.
Dealing with plant closures
Rich Boyer, the new UAW vice president who heads the Stellantis Department, said UAW members will stand together to block plant closings.
“I’m going to make one commitment to everybody in this room,” Boyer said. “If you’re in trouble, we’re coming. We’re coming to your side. We’re going to walk the line with you. We’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do to make sure you survive. It’s time we start punching back.”