United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain greets workers at the Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly Plant as contract negotiations begin in Sterling Heights, Michigan, U.S., July 12, 2023.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters
DETROIT – The United Auto Workers union is preparing for unprecedented, targeted strikes against auto workers Ford engineGeneral Motors and Stellantis if the sides fail to reach new agreements by 11:59 p.m. ET Thursday.
Targeted strikes or shortage strikes are an alternative to national actions in which the union only strikes selected companies. They are different from when members leave all factories and go on picket lines, as happened four years ago during the UAW’s last round of negotiations with the UAW General Motors.
Targeted strikes typically focus on key plants, which can then cause other plants to stop production due to parts shortages. They are not unprecedented, but the way UAW President Shawn Fain plans to conduct the walkouts is not typical. This includes initiating targeted strikes at selected plants and then potentially increasing the number of strikes depending on the status of negotiations.
“We will target all three companies, a historic first, initially in a limited number of target locations that we will announce. Then, depending on what happens in the negotiations, we will announce additional locals we will be called upon to address.” “Stand up and strike,” Fain said Wednesday during a Facebook Live.
Fain described the union’s plans as a “stand-up strike,” a reference to historic UAW sit-down strikes in the 1930s.
Although the targeted attacks are “historic,” they could have unintended consequences. It is not clear how one plant affects others. The actions could also potentially result in non-striking union members being sent to unemployment insurance if their state allows them to collect benefits because they are unemployed as a result of a strike.
What about lockouts?
Labor experts say the shutdowns also make it easier for companies to hire permanent replacements and even conduct factory lockouts.
The UAW’s strategy “puts pressure on companies” but also gives companies “a lot more opportunity” to use such tactics, said Dennis Devaney, senior counsel at Clark Hill and a former board member of the National Labor Relations Board.
Read more about the labor dispute in Detroit
“I think that’s obviously not a good thing from the UAW’s perspective,” said Devaney, who also previously worked as a lawyer for GM and Ford.
Factory lockouts, in which companies deny workers access to a facility, are more common abroad than in the U.S., but they still happen.
For example, one company experienced a worker lockout that lasted approximately ten months Exxon Mobil Texas refinery that ended last year with unions ratifying a new agreement. The company said this was in response to a strike call by the union during negotiations for a new contract in January 2021.
But automakers may want to keep producing parts and vehicles at their factories for as long as possible if strikes intensify, especially after years of supply chain disruptions due to parts shortages and the coronavirus pandemic.
There are “significant, important factors” that companies must consider to determine whether such “actions may be legal and appropriate,” said Jeffrey S. Kopp, a corporate employment lawyer with 26 years of experience and a partner at Foley & Lardner.
The UAW knows that lockouts are an option and argues that “everything is on the table” for both sides if there is a strike under the expired contracts, said a person familiar with the union’s plans .
The UAW has never conducted a strike like this before because, according to the union’s nationwide contract with Detroit automakers, strikes at individual plants must concern local contracts and not national issues. But Fain said the UAW would strike local plants over national issues.
(For context, the UAW as an organization has an “international” entity that operates a director or umbrella organization for local UAW entities, all of which have their own contracts in addition to a national agreement.)
Typically, such actions constitute a breach of contract and could result in litigation or a complaint with the NLRB. In 1998, for example, GM filed a lawsuit against the UAW, claiming that a shortage strike at two plants in Michigan that affected dozens of other company locations was illegal.
However, according to the union, this rule is no longer relevant because members are working under expired contracts that invalidate these conditions.
Ben Dictor, who serves as legal counsel for the UAW, said most contracts such as wages and working conditions are still in effect, but the “no strike, no lockout” clause is expiring. This means that the union can strike, but it also gives companies the opportunity to lock out workers.
“As part of the stand-up strike, some of us will be working without a contract. This is a key part of our strategy to keep companies off balance by calling on locals to strike based on what happens in the negotiations,” Dictor said in a video posted online by the union on Thursday. “This will keep them guessing and give a boost to your national negotiators in negotiations with the Big Three.”
Carrying out targeted attacks can be complex because it is not clear how one asset affects others. The actions could potentially result in non-striking union members being sent to unemployment insurance if their state allows them to collect benefits because they are unemployed as a result of a strike.
Targeted strikes will also save the union money by not having to pay as many members “strike pay” from its $825 million strike fund.
The fund pays each eligible member $500 a week, which would mean it would have enough cash to last about 11 weeks if all members went on strike. However, that does not include health care costs that the union would cover, such as temporary COBRA plans, which would likely deplete the fund much more quickly.
When asked about the strike fund’s ability to support the union, Fain frequently referred to how previous union leaders staged walkouts without pay and how UAW members must stick together.
“No one is coming to save us. Nobody can win this fight for us. Our best hope or only hope is that we stick together,” Fain said. “I can tell you this: I agree with the decision to strike if I have to because I know we are on the right side of this fight.”
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