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U.S. auto workers launch 1st simultaneous strike at 3 major factories

The United Auto Workers union said on Thursday evening that workers at three factories are set to walk off the job at midnight, setting up the most ambitious U.S. industrial labour action in decades.

Union deploying first simultaneous strikes against all three major automakers in 80 years

An auto worker wears a Tshirt emblazoned with union slogans.

The United Auto Workers union says it will go on strike at three factories as it presses Detroit companies to come up with better wage and benefit offers.

The factories include a General Motors assembly plant in Wentzville, Mo., a Ford factory in Wayne, Mich., and a Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.

Contracts between 146,000 autoworkers and the companies were set to expire at 11:59 p.m. ET Thursday.

Despite increased offers from Ford and GM, it appears no deals will be reached before the deadline.

UAW president Shawn Fain said Thursday night that more factories could be added to the strike list if negotiations don't go the union's way.

The chasm between the two sides threatened to ignite the first simultaneous strike by the UAW against all three Detroit companies in the union's 80-year history, a potential shock to an economy already under strain from elevated inflation. It's also a test of President Joe Biden's treasured assertion that he's the most pro-union president in U.S. history.

The union has a list of demands including 36 per cent pay raises over four years, cost of living raises, and an end to different tiers of wages for workers. Ford and GM are offering 20 per cent during the next contract while Stellantis' last known offer was 17.5 per cent.

Ford CEO Jim Farley said Wednesday night the company has made four offers to the union without getting a "genuine counteroffer."

"It's hard to negotiate a contract when there's no one to negotiate with," he said, wondering out loud whether Fain was too busy planning strikes or events aimed at getting publicity.

Little progress has been made

The company, Farley said, has made a generous wage offer, eliminated wage tiers, restored cost-of-living pay increases and increased vacation time. The union disputes his contention that tiers were ended.

Ford said at midday Thursday that it still hasn't received a counter to its fourth offer. GM, though, said it made another offer.

Automakers contend that they need to make huge investments to develop and build electric vehicles while still building and engineering internal combustion vehicles. They say an expensive labour agreement could saddle them with costs that would force them to raise prices above their non-union foreign competitors. And they say they have made fair proposals to the union.

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The union president said it is still possible that all 146,000 UAW members could walk out, but the union will begin by striking at a limited number of plants.

"If the companies continue to bargain in bad faith or continue to stall or continue to give us insulting offers, then our strike is going to continue to grow," Fain said. He said the targeted strikes, with the threat of escalation, "will keep the companies guessing."

If there's no deal by the end of Thursday, union officials will not bargain on Friday and instead will join workers on picket lines, he said.

In addition to general wage increases, the union is seeking restoration of cost-of-living pay raises, an end to varying tiers of wages for factory jobs, a 32-hour week with 40 hours of pay, the restoration of traditional defined-benefit pensions for new hires who now receive only 401(k)-style retirement plans, pension increases for retirees and other items.

In a 2019 agreement, the union got six per cent pay raises over four years with lump sums in some years as well as profit-sharing cheques.

Top pay for an assembly plant worker is now $32 US per hour.

A worker at a Ford factory is shown inspecting the door of a Focus sedan.

All three companies' offers on cost-of-living adjustments were deficient, Fain said, providing little or no protection against inflation.

The companies rejected pay raises for retirees who haven't received one in over a decade, Fain said, and they are seeking concessions in annual profit-sharing cheques, which often are more than $10,000 US.

Stellantis said it gave the union a third wage-and-benefit offer and is waiting for a response.

"Our focus remains on bargaining in good faith to have a tentative agreement on the table before tomorrow's deadline," Tobin Williams, the company's head of human resources in North America, said in a statement. "The future for our represented employees and their families deserves nothing less."

GM said that it continues to bargain in good faith, making "additional strong offers."

Farley, the Ford CEO, said that his company has made four "increasingly generous" offers since Aug. 29.

Farley said Ford has raised its wage offer, eliminated wage tiers and shortened from eight years to four years the time it would take hourly workers to reach top scale, and added more time off.

Middle ground hard to find

Thomas Kochan, a professor of work and employment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said both sides are going to have to make big compromises quickly in order to settle the disputes before the Thursday deadline.

"It'll go down to the wire, and there won't be an agreement until the final moment, if there is one at all," he said.

The union, he said, knows its initial proposals weren't realistic for any of the companies, but the companies know they're going to have to make a very expensive settlement, including addressing tiered wages for people doing the same jobs.

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