Newly elected UAW President Shawn Fain offered a blunt assessment of the union’s relations with automakers during a meeting with the Automotive Press Association, while revealing he flatly rejected the initial contract proposal for union members at the General Motors Ultium battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio.
He also ticked off problems at Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis, which are creating tensions with the UAW and its new leadership as the union prepares for contract negotiations this summer with Detroit’s three auto companies, which together employ more than 140,000 UAW members.
“If Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares thinks he can fly over here to threaten our members about product and absenteeism, that is a problem,” said Fain, who has yet to meet with Tavares directly. “We had some very stern conversations with Stellantis last week.”
Fain reminded attendees he was elected on a reform platform pledged to do away with what he described as “company unionism.” In short, expect some friction this summer.
Rocky relations with Stellantis
The union basically expects Stellantis to reverse its decision to shut down an assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois, added Fain, who was sworn less than a month ago as the UAW’s first president elected directly by UAW members.
To be fair, Stellantis hasn’t formally announced what it plans to do with the plant, officials often correcting those who say it’s closed with a reminder that it is “idled,” which clearly carries a different meeting for senior Stellantis executives.
For too long employers have not respected union members or their contributions to company profits and success, while working to get around existing contract language by using joint ventures to drive down wages, benefits and working conditions, said Fain, who criticized the emerging production structure of the electric vehicle battery as a case in point.
At the new battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio where employees voted last December to join the UAW, according to Fain, Ultium, the GM-LG Energy, offered the union a proposed contract with a starting wage of $16.50 per hour, topping out at $20. “That type of scale is unacceptable,” he said. “That has to change.”
The battery plants come with some safety concerns and require an extensive amount of training, which deserves higher wages.
Fain skeptical of joint battery ventures
The joint ventures all three Detroit companies have set up around batteries are not so much about technology, in Fain’s view, instead they are a way to circumvent existing labor contracts. Stellantis has set up a battery venture in Kokomo, Indiana where it employs nearly 8,000 UAW members, making conventional engines and transmissions, but there is no provision for union members to move to the new battery plant as their old jobs begin to disappear.
Fain said he was shocked the UAW said little about Ford’s plans to build a new complex for building EVs and batteries in Tennessee. As it stands, there is nothing to indicate the jobs in the complex will go to UAW members, and this week Ford announced plans to import the Lincoln Nautilus from China without even bothering to notify the union.
Since taking over as UAW president at the end of March, Fain noted he has meet with the senior management at both GM and Ford and described the initial meetings as “cordial and respectful.”
“I made it very clear; we expect our members not to get lost in the transition to electric vehicles,” said Fain, adding job security, the elimination of wage tier and wage increases will be at the top of the union’s list of demands this coming summer.
Fain dismissed what he described as the narrative higher wages will make Detroit’s carmakers less competitive with non-union companies.
“Our members deserve better,” he said during the hourlong zoom meeting with the APA members in which he said he believes union members expect the UAW’s leadership to take a harder line with employers.
“We were elected to change things,” he said. “It’s not about being adversarial, it’s about respect,” added Fain, who said one of goals is rebuild the power of the “working class” in the United States.