UAW, automakers still miles from deal

Lack of progress leads to concern strike will spread

FILE - United Auto Workers members walk a picket line during a strike at the Ford Motor Company Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

The autoworkers' strike against Detroit's three big automakers went into its fourth day Monday with no signs of an early breakthrough and against the backdrop of the threat that the walkout could soon spread.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain said Monday morning there's still a long way to go before the Detroit-based union reaches tentative labor agreements.

"We've put full offers to all three companies before the strike deadline, and we've really had minimal conversations over the weekend," Fain told National Public Radio. "The ball's still in their court, so we're going to keep moving as we have and just see how things progress."

A spokesman for General Motors said that representatives of the company and the UAW were continuing to negotiate on Monday.

So far the strike is limited to about 13,000 workers at three factories -- one each at GM, Ford and Stellantis. GM warned, however, that 2,000 UAW-represented workers at an assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan., are "expected to be idled as soon as early this week" because of a shortage of supplies from a GM plant near St. Louis, where workers walked off the job Friday.

Workers at the Kansas City plant build the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac XT4.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she is hoping for a quick resolution, and that it is too soon to gauge the economic effects of the strike.

"It's premature to be making forecasts about what it means for the economy. It would depend on how long the strike lasts and who would be affected by it," she said on CNBC.

Yellen said labor activism this year -- including strikes by Hollywood writers and actors, by workers at about 150 Starbucks locations and walkouts that were narrowly averted at United Parcel Service and West Coast ports -- has been driven by a strong labor market and high demand for workers.

In a sign of the potential economic and political risk of a long strike, President Joe Biden is sending two top administration officials to Detroit this week to meet with both sides. Biden has sided with the UAW in brief public comments, saying that the automakers have not fairly shared their record profits with workers.

An administration official said Monday that acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and senior aide Gene Sperling will not serve as mediators -- they won't be at the bargaining table -- but are going to Detroit "to help support the negotiations in any way the parties feel is constructive." The official was not authorized to discuss private discussions and spoke anonymously.

Fain said Monday that the Biden administration won't broker a deal.

"This is our battle. Our members are out there manning the picket lines," Fain said on MSNBC. "This battle is not about the president, it's not about the former president."

The UAW is seeking wage increases of 36% over four years, while the companies have offered about 20%. The union is also demanding a 32-hour work week for 40 hours of pay, and other changes.

Rather than an all-out strike of its 146,000 members, the union opted to initially target the three factories, a plan that could make the union's $825 million strike fund last longer. Workers walked out of a GM plant in Wentzville, Mo., a Ford plant near Detroit, and a Stellantis factory in Toledo, Ohio, that produces Jeeps.

A key feature of the UAW strategy is the threat of escalating the strike if the union is unhappy with the pace of bargaining. On Friday, Fain said more factories could be targeted: "It could be in a day, it could be in a week."

The auto strike is perilous for President Joe Biden, who's made building an electric vehicle and battery manufacturing industry a pillar of his economic agenda as he promotes himself as a pro-union president.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been rallying around the UAW.

But as Democrats settle into pro-union messaging, Republicans are using the walkout to drive a wedge between the union and Biden's push for electric vehicles.

The autoworkers "are folks who have sacrificed over the years to make sure that these companies were successful and now that they're very profitable, it's time to share those profits to make sure that we can strengthen the American middle class," Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who joined a picket line at a Ford factory in Wayne, Mich., said in a video post on X.

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, in a sign that Republicans see an opportunity to tap potential union discontent with Democrats, said in a statement last week he supports the UAW's demand for higher wages. "But there is a 6,000-pound elephant in the room: the premature transition to electric vehicles," he said.

Biden, who has proclaimed himself one of the "most pro-union presidents," rejected the view that his push for electric vehicles is at odds with union interests.

"Strong unions are critical to growing the economy and growing it from the middle out, the bottom up, not the top down," Biden said. "That's especially true as we transition to a clean energy future, which we're in the process of doing. I believe that transition should be fair, and a win-win for autoworkers and auto companies."

Information for this article was contributed by David Koenig of The Associated Press, David Welch, Keith Naughton, Gabrielle Coppola and Josh Eidelson of Bloomberg News and Breana Noble of The Detroit News and Valerie Yurk of CQ-Roll Call.