Unprecedented Threat of Simultaneous National Strike Looms Over Detroit’s Big 3 Automakers: UAW Negotiations Enter Critical Phase

Never before in the 88-year history of the UAW has the union attempted a national strike at all three of the Detroit 3 automakers simultaneously. However, this unprecedented scenario remains a possibility as contract negotiations with the automakers enter a critical post-Labor Day phase. UAW President Shawn Fain, known for his dramatic style, may see this as an opportunity to make headlines. However, such a mass walkout of nearly 150,000 workers would quickly deplete the union’s strike fund, raising concerns among members about the union’s ability to sustain such a strike and achieve better deals from the automakers.

During a Facebook livestream in early August, Fain assured workers that the union has a plan to manage a simultaneous strike if necessary. While the UAW has not disclosed its specific strategy, Fain declared this week that “everything’s on the table.” One potential tactic is a bottleneck strike, which involves halting production at key sites to force the closure of other plants. This approach could limit the amount the union has to pay out in strike pay, as workers at plants affected by parts shortages would not receive strike pay. However, this strategy carries legal risks and could leave non-striking workers ineligible for supplemental unemployment benefits from the automakers.

Targeting engine or transmission plants, such as Livonia Transmission at Ford, Kokomo Transmission at Stellantis, and Romulus Powertrain at GM, could be more advantageous than focusing solely on high-margin pickup or SUV assembly plants. These parts facilities employ fewer workers and supply multiple products. However, the UAW must proceed carefully, as individual locals are allowed to strike only over issues specific to those locals, not companywide matters. Lessons can be learned from past strikes, such as the famous bottleneck strike at GM plants in 1998, which cost the company $2 billion.

Another potential tactic that could draw lawsuits is striking at supplier plants. Unifor workers in Canada employed this strategy in 2019, causing production to briefly stop at a GM plant. However, the Ontario Labor Relations Board ruled the strikes illegal and prohibited them from being used. In the U.S., the National Labor Relations Act prohibits unions from striking at another employer to target a specific company.

To prepare for potential legal challenges and prevent companies from hiring permanent replacements during a strike, the UAW may file unfair labor practice charges instead. This would allow the union to call a strike over allegations of bad faith bargaining, rather than strictly over wages and economic issues.

Economists warn that a strike of any length against all three automakers could have severe financial consequences. The UAW’s 2019 strike against GM, lasting 40 days, cost the company $2.9 billion and resulted in the loss of 300,000 vehicles of production. Estimates suggest that a 10-day strike against the Detroit 3 could result in over $5 billion in economic losses, and a simultaneous strike could last at least six weeks and put 800,000 vehicles of production at risk. If a strike at all three companies endured for 100 days, it is projected that production of 1.5 million vehicles would be lost, potentially having a significant impact on the supply chain.

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