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UAW president Shawn Fain has kept his lips sealed on some strike needs. Is it symbolic?

UAW President Shawn Fain's most recent update on contract talks with Detroit Three automakers left out a number of original demands, prompting some experts to wonder whether the talks are starting to focus on what really needs to get done.

Fain laid out for union members Friday the most recent offer from Ford Motor Co. and the areas the union considers gains with the company, signaling to General Motors and Stellantis where they might be coming up short. For example, Fain said, Ford agreed to reinstate a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which would be a big win. He said neither GM nor Stellantis had offered the same.

Strikers walk out at noon from 38 GM, Stellantis parts including Center Line Packaging as UAW President Shawn Fain called for more shops to go out on strike Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.
Strikers walk out at noon from 38 GM, Stellantis parts including Center Line Packaging as UAW President Shawn Fain called for more shops to go out on strike Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

Three sources familiar with the negotiations told the Detroit Free Press on Monday that the expectation is Ford will likely reach a tentative agreement with the UAW before the other two automakers, who would then use the deal as a template for their contract offers.

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Given his previous list of demands, Fain made no mention Friday of the status of the union's requests for a 40% wage increase across the life of the contract, of establishing a 32-hour work week, or reinstating pensions and retiree health care benefits, all of which indicate to industry experts that those issues might be close to being settled with the automakers or they are possibly off the table for now.

"Fain has been publicly vocal about his demands," said Erik Gordon, business professor and labor expert at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. "People who negotiate in public rarely announce, 'We have given in on X.' They just stop talking about it."

Did Ford reach a deal with UAW?

A source familiar with the negotiations who asked to not be named because they are not authorized to be quoted in the media said throughout the weekend the union and Ford had “very active talks,” but there are “some key issues to go.” As for GM and Stellantis, the source said the union was not seeing the same movement as with Ford. But things were fluid and communication remained open.

But this person also said Fain did not update all of the demands during his Friday Facebook presentation so as to keep his announcement short and to emphasize real movement at Ford compared with GM and Stellantis. The demands Fain did not mention are not necessarily settled or off the table, this person said.

See the picket lines as UAW strike launched, targeting big three Detroit automakers

Some labor experts the Free Press interviewed noted that history dictates otherwise.

"Historically, when an end appears in sight in UAW bargaining the president pares down demands to include what the union absolutely needs ... what the union needs to assure ratification, which in fact is in the interest of both parties," said Harley Shaiken, professor emeritus at University of California-Berkeley.

Marick Masters, a business professor and labor expert at Wayne State University, said it is noteworthy that the UAW spared Ford in the union's expansion of the strike to more facilities Friday, citing the progress Ford had made in talks.

Fain ordered some 5,500 additional union members at 38 sites to walk off the job Friday at all parts distribution centers across the nation at GM and Stellantis. But Masters said beyond the increased pressure on those two automakers, it's hard to make out what Fain's strategy might be based on Friday's comments.

"Interestingly, Fain did not enumerate wages, the four-day work week, retiree health care, and defined benefit pensions.  Are these items either settled or off the proverbial table? Most likely not," Masters said. "Silence does not manifest agreement."

He said it's possible the parties are narrowing the gap on the issues and the overall "scope of terrain" they are considering.

"In any negotiation, there are tradeoffs between issues," Masters said. "Shawn Fain has repeatedly said that he does not expect to get everything in the members' demands. That does not tell me he or the UAW discounts certain demands, but they realize that successful bargaining occurs in the realm of the possible."

What is the UAW asking Ford for?

Fain first declared a strike as contract talks failed before the current contract expired at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14. Fain announced the first wave of plants the union would strike as: Ford Michigan Assembly Plant (Final Assembly and Paint only) in Wayne, Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio and GM's Wentzville Assembly in Missouri. There are about 13,000 workers on the picket lines at those three sites in addition to those sent out Friday.

"I can see Ford getting a (tentative agreement) as early as this week, definitely within the next 30 days," said another person familiar with the bargaining across the companies. "The company wants to get people back to work and people want to go back to work. If we get a TA with Ford, I think GM will fall in line. I don’t know about Stellantis."

This person said union leaders know there will be give and take in the ultimate agreement. For example, most union leaders know they are unlikely to get a 32-hour work week, but "we are going to have a conversation about work/life balance."

This person asked to not be identified due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.

For it's part, Ford said in a statement Friday it is working "diligently with the UAW" to reach a deal and although it is "making progress in some areas, we still have significant gaps to close on the key economic issues. In the end, the issues are interconnected and must work within an overall agreement that supports our mutual success.”

On Monday evening, as President Joe Biden prepared to head to Detroit to join the UAW on the picket line, Ford said it would stay focused on bargaining adding, "Ford and the UAW are going to be the ones to solve this by finding creative solutions to tough issues together at the bargaining table."

Here are the areas where Ford and the UAW have made progress, Fain said Friday:

  • Reinstating the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to offset increases in inflation over the life of the contract.

  • Eliminating a wage tier by putting Rawsonville Components and Sterling Axle employees on the same wage as assembly workers.

  • Agreeing the union has a right to strike over any plant closures.

  • Offering two years pay and health care coverage for laid-off workers.

  • Agreeing to immediately convert all temporary workers to regular full-time with at least 90 days employment upon ratification of a new contract.

  • Agreeing to an enhanced profit-sharing formula that would have resulted in a 13.3% increase for the average employee in payouts last year. Also, expand profit sharing to temporary employees who have been employed for at least 90 days.

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UAW already might have a good deal with Ford

Though Fain expressed more frustration amid talks with GM and Stellantis, the UAW "won a serious victory" when GM agreed to eliminate the wage tiers for workers at Customer Care and Aftersales (CCA) and GM Components Holdings (GMCH) facilities. These workers would be on the same scale as assembly workers.

But both GM and Stellantis fall short of offering adequate COLA plans, Fain said Friday. They also rejected the following UAW proposals: job security, profit-sharing and converting temporary employees to permanent, according to Fain.

Two other people familiar with the talks between GM and the UAW indicate that reinstating COLA, which the union lost in 2009 when automakers were struggling, is an area to which GM is most resistant. In its Sept. 14 proposal to the union, which Barra has called a "record offer," GM offered "Cost-of-living inflation protection" for maximum wage earners. The way that would work is if inflation exceeds an annual wage increase, employees at top wage will be paid the difference. So this proposal is not exactly the same as the COLA provision the union wants that would protect all workers from any increase in inflation over the course of the contract.

If the union insists on getting retiree health care, defined benefit pensions and a 32-hour work week, plus COLA and a large wage increase, then a stalemate with the companies, including Ford, seems inevitable, Wayne State's Masters said.

"The terms on which the UAW and Ford have made progress, including eliminating tiers, restoring COLA, accelerating transition from temporary to full-time employment, the right to strike and economic security for laid-off workers, along with increase profit-sharing offer a skeleton of a potential tentative agreement," Masters said. "In a certain respect, the union has already won a good contract based on these preliminary terms."

Holding out for more with expanded strikes and aggressive media relations might work to the UAW's advantage, he said.

"Stronger action may be required to get a deal with either Stellantis or GM,' Masters said. "But a tentative agreement with Ford would give impetus to that end."

Contact Jamie L. LaReau: jlareau@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletterBecome a subscriber.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: In UAW strike negotiations, what is president Shawn Fain not saying?