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Autoworkers Give Green Light to Strike if Talks Break Down

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union has announced that 97 percent of its members have voted in favor of authorizing strikes against General Motors, Ford Motor, and Stellantis if the union and companies fail to negotiate new labor contracts. The UAW president, Shawn Fain, now has the authority to instruct workers to strike once the current contracts expire on September 14.

Strike authorization votes are typically formalities and do not guarantee strikes. However, this vote comes at a time when the UAW is taking a more assertive stance with automakers, reflecting a broader shift in organized labor.

Over the past decade, G.M., Ford, and Stellantis have recorded significant profits, which has emboldened Fain and UAW members to demand substantial wage increases, cost-of-living adjustments, and improved benefits related to pensions and healthcare.

Fain, elected as UAW president in a narrow race earlier this year, has successfully united union members. He has been attending rallies with workers in Detroit and Louisville, and more similar events are planned in the coming weeks. These rallies are unusual during contract negotiations, which have not seen such mobilization in the past two decades.

Luigi Gjokaj, a vice president at UAW Local 51, expressed both nervousness and excitement at the Detroit rally. He stated that if the companies negotiate fairly, an agreement can be reached, but if necessary, the union is prepared for a strike.

Speaking at a rally near a Stellantis plant that produces the highly profitable Jeep Wagoneer, Fain emphasized that the goal is not to become millionaires but to secure a fair share.

Ford, in a statement after the strike vote, expressed its hope for collaboration with the UAW to find innovative solutions during a time when the industry is undergoing significant change and requires a skilled workforce.

Fain recently presented a list of demands to the companies, including the possibility of working four days a week and a 40 percent wage increase. He highlighted the substantial compensation packages received by the CEOs of G.M., Ford, and Stellantis over the past four years. While new hires at auto plants start at around $16 per hour, veteran workers earn $32 per hour after several years.

G.M., Ford, and Stellantis have indicated that they are open to some form of wage increase. In a sign of potential progress, an Ohio battery plant jointly owned by G.M. and LG Energy Solution agreed to a 25 percent average wage increase for 1,900 UAW workers.

The manufacturers aim to minimize labor cost increases in the new contract due to their substantial investments in electric vehicles. They argue that agreeing to most or all of the UAW’s demands would put them at a competitive disadvantage against Tesla and nonunionized automakers in the United States.

President Biden expressed his concern about a potential autoworkers’ strike, emphasizing that the transition to electric vehicles should not harm workers and that jobs being displaced should be replaced with new ones that offer commensurate pay.

Former President Donald J. Trump, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, has been leveraging autoworkers’ concerns about the switch to electric vehicles to court the UAW, which traditionally supports Democrats but has yet to endorse President Biden.

Despite the costs associated with investing in electrification, G.M., Ford, and Stellantis are enjoying substantial profits. G.M. expects to earn over $9.3 billion this year, while Stellantis made 11 billion euros (about $11.9 billion) in the first half of this year, and Ford forecasts earnings of $11 billion to $12 billion before taxes this year.

The UAW typically focuses on negotiating with one company and designates it as the target for a strike if an agreement cannot be reached. So far, the union has not announced its specific target, but Fain has engaged in public disputes primarily with Stellantis.

Following Fain’s demands, Stellantis proposed greater worker contributions to healthcare costs, reduced company contributions to retirement accounts, and the ability to temporarily close plants with minimal notice. Fain strongly rejected these proposals, publicly expressing his disgust and discarding a copy of the proposal in a wastebasket. Stellantis’s chief operating officer for North America, Mark Stewart, condemned Fain’s remarks and emphasized the need for constructive dialogue to reach an agreement.

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