UAW members go on 'historic' strike as deadline to reach new contract expires

Members of the United Auto Workers union strike outside the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., early Friday. Photo by Mike Hulholland/EPA-EFE

Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Thousands of auto workers at three U.S. assembly plants went on strike at midnight Thursday when their United Auto Workers union and the Big Three automakers failed to come to an agreement on a new contract.

"The UAW Stand Up Strike begins at all Three of the Big Three," the union said on social media as the deadline to reach a deal expired.

"Be ready to stand up for your family. Be ready to stand up for your community. Be ready to stand up against corporate greed," it said in a separate post with photos of picketing auto workers. "Let's stand up and make history."

The three local units that went on strike were Local 2250 of the General Motors assembly plant in Wentzville, Mo.; Local 12 at Stellantis' assembly plant in Toledo, Ohio; and Local 900 at Ford Motor Co.'s assembly plant in Michigan.

Shawn Fain, president of UAW, joined picketers at the Ford assembly plant early Friday.

"Enough is enough," he said in a statement that accompanied a picture of him talking to media at the site. "It's time to decide what kind of a world we want to live in. And it's time to decide what we are willing to do to get there."

Fain had announced Thursday night less than two hours before the deadline that if a tentative was not reached before midnight, the union "will strike all three" Detroit carmakers at once for the first time in history.

Fain had previously outlined a rolling strike strategy to target just some facilities and add more if negotiations failed to progress to labor contracts. In a Facebook Live message, he had called on three local UAW units to "stand up" and strike.

"The locals that have not been called to join the 'Stand Up' strike will continue to work under an expired agreement. No contract extensions," the union boss said.

"Though the contract is expired, most of your contract is still in effect. Management cannot change terms and conditions of work in your workplace."

Fain noted that union-protected employees do not become at-will employees and cannot be fired or disciplined for no reason.

"This strategy will keep the companies guessing. It will give our national negotiators maximum leverage and flexibility in bargaining. And if we need to go all out, we will," Fain said. "Everything is on the table."

A "massive" rally is also planned for Friday in Detroit, he said.

"For the first time in our union's history, we had all three companies bargaining right here at the solidarity house leading into the final hours of our strike deadline. We've been working hard trying to reach a deal for economic and social justice for our members," Fain said Thursday.

"We have been firm. We are committed to winning an agreement with the Big Three that reflects the incredible sacrifice and contributions UAW members have made to these companies. We've been open. The companies, the members and the public know what we've been fighting for. And we've been clear -- midnight on the evening of Sept. 14 is the deadline.

"Tonight, for the first time in our history, we will strike all three of the big three at once."

The strike followed an 11th-hour agreement with the Detroit Three automakers to move labor contract negotiations to UAW headquarters to save time by keeping Fain from having to drive between their three headquarters dozens of miles apart.

Prior to the deadline passing, negotiations had appeared to be making some progress, and GM put another economic offer on the table, indicating the company was ready to negotiate all the way to the deadline. According to The Detroit News, that offer included a wage increase of 20%.

Ford, however, suggested late Thursday that the union ahead of the deadline was being reluctant to negotiate.

In a statement, the automaker said that since late August it has presented UAW with four proposals, the latest of which was "historically generous," and that the union submitted its "first substantive counterproposal" at 8 p.m. that night.

"Unfortunately, the UAW's counterproposal tonight showed little movement from the union's initial demands submitted Aug. 3," it said, stating that if it agreed to the UAW's terms, Ford's labor costs would more than double.

"Ford has bargained in good faith in an effort to avoid a strike, which could have wide-ranging consequences for our business and the economy," it said.

Some have raised concerns that the union's fund to pay striking workers could be depleted quickly by striking all three companies.

Economists with the University of Michigan have said the state would face economic fallout with more than 300,000 people not receiving a paycheck if the union strikes all three carmakers for eight weeks.

"We expect the economic spillovers from a strike by the UAW against one or more of the Detroit Three automakers to start out modestly but grow over time if the strike drags on," said Gabriel Ehrlich, an economist on the forecasting team.

"Our assessment is that a strike along the lines of what we saw in 2019, against a single automaker and lasting around six weeks, would not fundamentally alter the trajectory of Michigan's economy, although it would certainly be disruptive in the short run."

Susan Tompor, a business columnist for the Detroit Free Press, wrote in an op-ed that the job losses "would be brutal" and "unlike any other in history" because the plan for rolling strikes would cause much more uncertain and unpredictable disruptions.

Economists have suggested that suppliers to the Detroit Three automakers could also be affected by the strike, though industry experts expect such suppliers to try to avoid layoffs as long as possible.

The University of Michigan forecast predicts more than a million people could lose their jobs nationwide after an eight-week strike at all three carmakers.

An analysis from the Anderson Economic Group, a company that has previously consulted with the Detroit Three, has predicted that the total economic loss from a strike could reach more than $5 billion after 10 days.

"When the UAW went on strike against GM in 2019, Michigan experienced a single quarter recession," AEG principal and chief executive Patrick Anderson said in a statement.

Fain has dismissed corporate arguments that a rise in hourly wages would lead to a rise in car prices, as well as damage the economy.