The first-ever simultaneous strike by Detroit’s “Big Three” auto companies has unleashed a wave of uncertainty that shows no signs of dissipating. As negotiations continue between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis, industry watchers predict that this labor conflict could endure for weeks or even longer. The inability of both sides to find common ground is becoming increasingly evident in their public statements. With the UAW setting a Friday deadline for significant progress, tension is mounting.
To minimize immediate impact and maximize pressure, the UAW strategically opted for a limited strike, targeting only one plant at each company instead of completely halting production. This approach creates uncertainty in the industry, which can have far-reaching consequences. Harry Katz, a professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, suggests that the strike could extend for six to eight weeks or longer. Although the three affected plants are not the most profitable for the companies, the possibility of escalating the strike to more critical facilities looms, intensifying the pressure on company profitability. Michigan State University professor Michelle Kaminski explains that the union has left room to inflict even more substantial harm, indicating that their tactics could escalate further.
The Deutsche Bank estimates that the strike will result in a weekly loss of operating profits ranging from $41 million to $64 million for the automakers. On the UAW’s side, the strike impacts approximately 12,700 workers, less than 10 percent of UAW auto workers nationwide, minimizing the financial impact on their strike fund. With estimated weekly expenditures of $6.5 million, the strike seems manageable for the UAW in the short term. However, the Deutsche Bank suggests that the union’s strategy is to inject uncertainty into the negotiations, increasing the pressure on the automakers.
As negotiations drag on, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein predicts that the UAW will likely expand its target plants on a weekly basis, instilling a sense of perpetual uncertainty for the companies involved. The threat of the next plant shutdown looms over the negotiation table, creating a hostile environment that shows no signs of abating. Lichtenstein speculates that the strike could persist for at least a month, indicating that both parties must brace themselves for a protracted battle.
The UAW’s demands for 40 percent wage hikes mirror the salary increases of auto CEOs over the past four years, aiming to address the disparity between workers’ compensation and executive pay. Additionally, the union seeks the elimination of different worker pay and benefit tiers, a cost-of-living adjustment, and the reinstatement of retiree medical benefits. Departing from their traditional approach of selecting a lead company for a strike, the UAW has deviated from the norm by simultaneous targeting all three automakers. However, labor experts suspect that the union may still utilize the first agreement reached as a model for subsequent deals, particularly in areas such as wages.
Auto industry analysts at Cox Automotive have identified varying vulnerabilities among GM, Stellantis, and Ford. They suggest that GM’s brisk sales make them more susceptible to the impact of the strike, especially when compared to Stellantis, which has a more ample supply due to comparatively weaker sales. Ford falls in the middle of the two extremes, an observation that leaves their vulnerability to the strike somewhat ambiguous. GM’s current inventory of new and popular vehicles stands at approximately 10 days, with hopes of increasing this supply by year-end.
As the strike by US auto workers engulfs Detroit’s “Big Three” in a cloud of uncertainty, the battle shows no signs of resolution. With both sides still far apart in their negotiations, the strike could persist for weeks or even longer. The UAW’s calculated strategy of creating uncertainty and escalating the strike if necessary places immense pressure on these automakers. Only time will tell how this historic labor conflict will unfold and what its impacts will be on the industry as a whole.