AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The start of the United Auto Workers union’s negotiations with Detroit’s automakers is full of traditions. This time, though, the gap between tradition and a rapidly changing industry is wide.
Traditions include the union and company negotiating teams shaking hands for the cameras, marking the formal start of talks. It’s a format that began decades ago and has changed little.
This year, the negotiations are occurring in the midst of the biggest industry changes in more than a century. Automakers face an uncertain future. Companies are looking at huge investments in self-driving and electric vehicles, not knowing whether any of it will pay off.
There’s also the prospect that consumers will move more toward ride-sharing services, meaning fewer people will actually own their cars or trucks.
In short, the 20th century is colliding with the 21st.
The Detroit-based UAW has dealt with uneasy times before. It has negotiated with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler (and its various predecessor companies) amid recessions and adoption of labor-saving technology in factories.
Still, there are more fundamental changes in progress. There was a sense of that at the start of talks at Fiat Chrysler, the last Detroit-area automaker to conduct its UAW ceremony. Ford started the cycle on July 15 and GM went earlier today.
“We’ve got to keep making the right strategic decisions together,” Mark Stewart, Fiat Chrysler’s chief operating officer for North America, said in prepared remarks for today’s event.
“Our industry is undergoing a massive transformation,” Stewart added. That change is “driven by disruptive technologies. Disruption is an opportunity for us.” The executive also said the company will seek flexibility in deploying workers.
Fiat Chrysler has had better labor news than other automakers. Earlier this year, it said it was investing $4.5 billion in Michigan facilities, including a new plant in the city limits of Detroit. The move was hard to imagine ten years ago when the former Chrysler received a U.S.-backed bailout where it was absorbed by Italy’s Fiat.
Regardless. Gary Jones, the president of the UAW, said the union has an agenda to press during the talks.
‘Race to the Bottom’
“I am sorry to say, that despite billions of dollars in corporate profits, we’re watching a race to the bottom over the past several years for working men and women in this country,” he said.
“With this year’s negotiations, we will halt that race to the bottom. We’ll protect our work, our jobs and our way of life,” Jones said. Among other things, the union official said the UAW wants to cut back the use of temporary workers at plants.
The union’s contracts with all three automakers expire at 11:59 p.m., Sept. 14. Sometime before then, the UAW will select a “target” automaker to concentrate negotiation efforts.
Once a deal is struck, the union will try to impose the basic terms on the other two automakers. Again, that’s the 20th century part of UAW-Detroit Three negotiations.
The question is whether the industry’s 21st-century conditions will make that more difficult. Answers may come in September.