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UAW leaders and automakers return to the bargaining table

As the United Auto Workers strike against the Big Three automakers entered a second day, the parties returned to the bargaining table Saturday.

The UAW said it had “reasonably productive conversations with Ford today.” The union is also meeting with General Motors on Saturday. Stellantis said it will meet with the UAW Monday.

Some 12,700 UAW members — or roughly 8 percent of the union’s autoworkers — are on strike at a Stellantis plant in Toledo, at a GM plant in Wentzville, Mo., and at Ford’s assembly plant in Wayne, Mich.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke to crowds at a UAW rally in Detroit on Sept. 15, calling out leaders of the Big Three automakers for growing wage gaps. (Video: Reuters)

The UAW ordered the bulk of its members to keep working for now. However, by the end of Friday, Ford and General Motors announced that they will temporarily lay off 2,600 nonstriking workers because their facilities depend on work from striking plants.

The union and companies remain far apart on pay and benefits in their weeks-long contract negotiations, with the union demanding a 36 percent wage increase over four years. On Saturday, Stellantis, the parent company of Jeep and Chrysler, said it is offering a 21 percent cumulative wage increase over the course of a new contract, a proposal it made Thursday, before the strike started. Ford and GM have offered raises of 20 percent.

Why UAW workers say they are on strike

The UAW continues to keep its strike plans secret. When asked Friday night whether it might strike at more plants, UAW President Shawn Fain said that depended on the outcome of negotiations.

“As things progress or don’t progress, we’ll make decisions as a board or as a union, and we’ll take the next step,” Fain said after a rally in Detroit late Friday. “It could be in a day. It could be in a week. It just depends on how things progress.”

In a statement Saturday morning, Fain said the union will make sure laid-off workers “will not go without an income.”

He did not elaborate, but 600 laid-off workers at an idled Ford stamping plant in Wayne have been informed by their local UAW leadership that they can sign up for the $500 weekly strike benefit that the union is paying striking workers, according to Mike Kanowski, 67, a union representative for his plant and a Ford autoworker for 49 years.

Asked whether he was worried about the temporary layoffs lasting a long time, Kanowski said: “Nah, we’re all onboard. We’ve been shafted over the past few contracts.”

Fain accused the companies of laying off workers to “put the squeeze on our members to settle for less.”

GM and Ford said the layoffs were a direct consequence of the strike, which is depriving nonstriking plants of materials. The laid-off workers will not be eligible for the usual unemployment benefits the companies pay when they idle any of their plants, both companies said. GM said this was because they are working under an expired contract.

“We have said, repeatedly, that nobody wins in a strike, and that effects go well beyond our employees on the plant floor and negatively impact our customers, suppliers and the communities where we do business,” GM said in a statement Friday.

It’s the first time the union has launched a strike against all three companies at the same time. The last national auto strike was against GM in 2019.

The autoworker strikes that changed America

The striking Stellantis plant in Toledo makes Jeep Wranglers and Gladiators. GM’s Wentzville plant makes Chevrolet Colorado trucks and Express vans as well as GMC Canyon trucks and Savana vans. Ford’s Michigan assembly plant in Wayne makes Ranger trucks and Bronco SUVs.

Stellantis said on Saturday that its last offer included a proposal to salvage jobs at a large factory in Belvidere, Ill., that it had shuttered this year, laying off 1,200 workers. But the offer was only on the table until the strike began, Mark Stewart, Stellantis’s chief operating officer, told reporters during a call, the Detroit News and others reported.

In comments later Saturday, Fain said this showed Stellantis was using Belvidere workers as a “bargaining chip.”

The UAW president has called the companies’ wage offers inadequate after years of sharp inflation and fat corporate profits. He also points to the large pay increases the auto CEOs received during the course of the autoworkers’ just-expired contract, which was signed in 2019.

GM chief executive Mary Barra’s compensation, including bonus and stock awards, grew by 34 percent between 2019 and 2022, to $29 million last year. Ford’s CEO pay grew by 21 percent over that period, to $21 million last year. Stellantis, headquartered in the Netherlands and formed through a 2021 merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot, didn’t exist when the contract began. Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares earned about $25 million last year, including long-term incentives.

Full-time UAW workers earn between $18 and $32 an hour, along with profit-sharing payments and other bonuses. During the four years of the just-expired contract, full-timers were “eligible” for total profit-sharing payments of $44,700, Stellantis said Saturday. Ford says its average full-timer received $75,000 of profit-sharing payments over the past 10 years.

Temporary workers earn lower wages, around $16 to $19 an hour, and aren’t eligible for profit-sharing or other bonuses. And they often get stuck in temp status for years. The companies have proposed raising their starting wages to $20 an hour. Ford has proposed converting all existing temps to full-time status within 90 days.

The automakers argue that they are offering better wage increases and benefits than they have in decades. Ford calls its offer the best in 80 years. Barra on Friday told CBS News that the company’s offer is “a record from a gross-wage perspective in our 115-year history.”

But she said GM cannot meet all of the union’s demands while remaining profitable. Those demands include a 32-hour workweek, defined-benefit pensions for all workers instead of 401(k) accounts, and company-financed health care in retirement.

Meanwhile, outside the Bronco and Ranger plant Saturday afternoon, striking workers were in high spirits, buoyed by a stream of support. Drivers on the main thoroughfare, Michigan Avenue, pumped their car horns. Relatives, friends, local businesses and even strangers dropped off pizza, water, fried chicken and cookies. Someone set up a barbecue.

Justin Bowden, 39, a Ford frame-line worker and father of four from Detroit, said he signed up to work at the Michigan plant less than a year ago because he was “under the impression this was a good job, seeing my father work at Chrysler when I was young.” His father was able to buy his own house and several rental properties.

“Back then, it was better,” concluded Bowden, a renter who makes $18 an hour and works a second job stocking shelves at Dollar Tree. “Right now, it’s not too good. You have to have two jobs.”

Gurley reported from Detroit.

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