The head of the United Auto Workers announced plans for a strike, saying the two sides are still far apart

Detroit (AFP) - The head of the US auto workers union announced Wednesday plans to strike against the three major Detroit automakers, 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,” Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers union, said of a stoppage that could begin at a limited number of plants Friday morning and expand gradually while contract talks continue.

Fain – appearing in a webcast briefing less than 48 hours before current contracts expire at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis – said “we’re making progress” amid intensifying negotiations, “but we’re still very far apart.”

Fain has for months vowed a tough approach to negotiations, demanding significant pay hikes in light of record profits and saying the group 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.

People attend the 2023 North American International Auto Show at the Huntington Place convention center in Detroit, Michigan, on September 13, 2023.

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

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

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

Ford and Stellantis did not have immediate comment Wednesday night.

- 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, who has sought to strengthen ties with unions.

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.

The show opens to the public Saturday.

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.

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.

President Joe Biden weighed in last month, saying the UAW “deserves a contract that sustains the middle class,” but urging “all sides to work together to forge a fair agreement.”

But the UAW, unlike other leading unions, has thus far withheld an endorsement of Biden’s reelection campaign, saying the White House should do more to support workers in the transition to electric vehicles.

Former president Donald Trump entered the fray 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.”