The United Auto Workers union represents about 150,000 employees at Ford, GM and Stellantis

Detroit (AFP) - The head of the US auto workers union announced plans on Wednesday to strike against the three major Detroit car manufacturers, saying the two sides remain far from a new agreement.

“We are preparing to strike these companies in a way they’ve never seen before,” United Auto Workers (UAW) president Shawn Fain said of General Motors, Ford and Stellantis.

If no agreement is reached, a stoppage could begin at a limited number of plants Friday morning and gradually expand as talks continue, leading to an increasingly heavy economic hit.

Fain, appearing in a webcast briefing less than 48 hours before the current contracts expire, said negotiators were “making progress” but “we’re still very far apart.”

For months, the UAW president has vowed a tough approach to negotiations, demanding significant pay hikes in light of record profits and saying workers could strike at all three companies at once for the first time ever.

Industry sources have expressed guarded optimism about averting a stoppage, noting that Fain’s tough tone could be part of a bargaining strategy to win a better deal.

Formerly held in January, the event, officially known as the North American International Detroit Auto Show, was rebooted as an autumn occurrence in 2022 with a primary focus on retail consumers

While a last-minute agreement remains possible, the wariness at companies grew Wednesday morning after the UAW announced a rally for Friday afternoon in downtown Detroit with Fain and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, one of Congress’s staunchest champions of organized labor.

GM said in a statement Wednesday night that it continues “to bargain in good faith.”

“We are making progress in key areas that we believe are most important to our represented team members,” GM said, referring to the auto workers.

“This includes historic guaranteed annual wage increases, investments in our US manufacturing plants to provide opportunities for all, and shortening the time for in-progression employees to reach maximum wages.”

Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, said it was “still awaiting the UAW’s response to the offer we presented yesterday.”

“Our focus remains on bargaining in good faith to have a tentative agreement on the table before the collective bargaining agreement expires,” the company said.

The sharpest response came from Ford, which has more union-represented workers than the other two companies.

CEO Jim Farley said Ford had also not received a counteroffer to its latest proposal.

“We should be working creatively to solve hard problems rather than planning strikes and PR events,” Farley said in a statement.

“Please remember that Ford, more than any other company, has bet on the UAW and treated the UAW with respect,” he said. “The future of our industry is at stake. Let’s do everything we can to avert a disastrous outcome.”

- Auto show upstaged -

A strike could begin at 12:01 Friday morning with a few locals. The aim is to “keep the companies guessing” and maximize union leverage as negotiations continue, Fain said.

Uncertainty about the labor situation has hung over the Detroit Auto Show, which kicked off Wednesday morning, and posed a new challenge to President Joe Biden.

Formerly held in January, the event, officially known as the North American International Detroit Auto Show, was rebooted as an autumn occurrence in 2022 with a primary focus on retail consumers.

The prospect of a strike by an emboldened United Auto Workers union has dampened the mood at this year's Detroit Auto Show

Ford kicked off this year’s proceedings with a Tuesday night celebration of its updated F-150, while GM and Stellantis unveiled new vehicles at boisterous press conferences Wednesday morning.

But many in and around the auto industry are much more focused on the labor situation.

The UAW represents about 150,000 workers at the three companies.

Fain has targeted a 40 percent wage increase commensurate with hikes in CEO pay in recent years.

During his briefing, Fain reviewed each of the latest proposals in his presentation. The current wage hikes proposed are 20 percent at Ford, 18 percent at GM and 17.5 percent at Stellantis, he said.

The companies have rejected key union demands on job security pledges and eliminating different wage “tiers” among workers, Fain said. Fain also said cost-of-living provisions were inadequate.

Biden, who has sought to brandish his union ties while avoiding threats to the economy heading into an election year, weighed in last month, saying the UAW “deserves a contract that sustains the middle class” while urging “all sides to work together.”

Former president Donald Trump entered the fray on Wednesday, saying the UAW should “make the complete and total repeal of Joe Biden’s insane Electric Vehicle mandate their top, non-negotiable demand in any strike.”