The US auto workers' union announced the start of a strike at three factories just after midnight

Detroit (AFP) - The US auto workers’ union announced the start of a strike at three factories just after midnight on Friday, as a deadline expired to reach a deal with employers on a new contract.

“The UAW Stand Up Strike begins at all three of the Big Three,” the United Auto Workers union said in a post on social media platform X, adding that workers were striking at plants for General Motors, Stellantis and Ford.

“Tonight, for the first time in our history, we will strike all three of the Big Three at once,” UAW President Shawn Fain said in a webcast two hours before the midnight contract expiration at the three major automakers.

Fain said the union would strike at one plant at each company: a GM plant in Wentzville, Missouri; a Stellantis facility in Toledo, Ohio; and a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, but only the final assembly and paint operations.

About 12,700 workers were walking off the job Friday, after employers and the union – which represents about 150,000 workers – failed to reach a last-minute agreement.

Fain has described the targeted strike as aimed to maximize pressure on the companies while negotiations continue.

Ford, which had complained about the UAW’s slow response to its latest offer, received at 8:00 pm a counteroffer with what it called “unsustainable” terms.

“Ford has bargained in good faith in an effort to avoid a strike,” the company said, adding that it “remains absolutely committed to reaching an agreement that rewards our employees and protects Ford’s ability to invest in the future as we move through industry-wide transformation” towards electric vehicles.

General Motors and Stellantis did not immediately comment.

On Thursday, General Motors upped its offer, lifting a proposed wage increase to 20 percent. The company had previously proposed an 18 percent rise, according to the UAW.

A prolonged conflict could prove bad news for President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, as voters are already unhappy about stubborn inflation.

On Thursday evening, he spoke by telephone with Fain and the heads of major automakers to discuss the ongoing negotiations.

- ‘Bargaining in good faith’ -

After a lengthy period of union defensiveness, Fain has seen the current tight labor market as an opportunity to push through major gains. The negotiations also come as the Detroit Three remain buoyed by a period of profitability.

In a presentation on Wednesday, Fain described the plan of a gradually expanding strike as aiming to keep the companies off balance and maximize the union’s bargaining position.

“It is long past time to stand up for the working class, to stand up for our communities and to stand up against unchecked corporate greed,” Fain said.

He has told local unions to be in a “state of readiness” in case their factories are enlisted in the strike, said Michael Spencer, vice president of UAW Local 1700, which represents 6,000 workers at Stellantis’ Ram factory in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

Spencer and other leaders at the union are devising strike plans in which workers would do scheduled five-hour strike shifts, manning the plant’s 14 entrances to create a visible UAW presence.

“At the end of the day, nobody wants to strike,” said Spencer, who noted the goal is not to hurt consumers or the company.

“You are trying to shake the table up enough to get their attention,” he said.

Spencer said wages have not kept up with the cost of living, which means Stellantis workers cannot afford the vehicles they make. The Ram 1500 pickup can cost between $40,160 and $84,355, depending on the trim level.

Other sticking points include raising pay and benefits for temporary and junior employees at lower tiers, who currently make as little as $22 per hour compared with the top rate of $31 an hour.

The UAW’s demands include a 40-percent hike in wages, which Fain has said is needed to match rises in CEO pay.

Analysts have said a lengthy strike would put pressure on suppliers, who might be forced to lay off workers in a move that could slow a recovery when the strike ends.

The worst-case scenario would be a lengthy strike at all three companies, dampening consumer spending and weighing on the economy in the Great Lakes region, Canada and beyond.