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The auto strike deadline is close, but any deal has ‘a long way to go’

President Joe Biden expressed confidence that three of the nation’s automakers would avoid a strike at a Labor Day event this week. But it’s tough to find anyone in the auto industry on either side of negotiations ready to agree with that.

“No, I’m not worried about a strike until it happens,” Biden told reporters on Monday in Philadelphia. “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Spokespeople from the nation’s “Big Three” unionized automakers – General Motors, Ford and Stellantis – told CNN in response that they were working to reach a deal and avoid strikes, but none were more specific than that.

In contrast, when UPS was faced with a possible August 1 strike, the company and the Teamsters union both repeatedly said they were close to a deal. UPS even continued to predict a deal would be reached to avoid a strike, even during the three weeks in July when talks had broken down and there were no formal negotiations. Those two sides eventually averted a strike with a deal overwhelmingly approved by the membership.

But these negotiations are sounding different.

No predictions a deal is close

The current contracts between the United Auto Workers union and the three automakers all expire at 11:59 pm on September 14, raising the possibility of one or more strike on September 15.

None of that July optimism at UPS is currently being voiced by the automakers or the UAW.

UAW President Shawn Fain was doubtful Monday when asked about Biden’s no-strike prediction, and he said the union is prepared to strike any company that doesn’t reach a tentative deal before the September 15 strike deadline.

“I appreciate President Biden’s optimism. I also hope that the Big Three get serious and start bargaining in good faith. We are ready to do what is necessary to get our share of economic and social justice for our members,” Fain told CNN Monday afternoon. “We have a long way to go and a short time to get there.”

All the automakers would say Tuesday was that they hope to avoid a strike.

“It is Stellantis’ desire to reach an agreement with the UAW without a work stoppage,” said a statement from the company, which makes vehicles for the US market under the Jeep, Ram, Dodge and Chrysler brands. “It is our belief that a strike doesn’t benefit anyone – it hurts our customers, our employees and the community.”

But the UAW filed unfair labor practice complaints last week alleging that both GM and Stellantis were bargaining in bad faith, alleging that the two companies wouldn’t even bother responding to the union’s demands for pay and benefit increases. The move had relatively limited legal significance since the National Labor Relations Board won’t rule on it before the September 15 strike deadline. But it’s a sign of how far apart the sides are.

GM and Stellantis both responded by disputing that they are negotiating in bad faith.

“We have been hyper-focused on negotiating directly and in good faith with the UAW and are making progress,” said a statement from Gerald Johnson, GM executive vice president of global manufacturing. “Our goal remains the same - to achieve an agreement without a disruption that rewards our team members and protects the future of the entire GM team.”

The UAW did not file a similar complaint against Ford because the company provided the union with a response to its demands. But Fain said the terms of the Ford’s offer “not only fails to meet our needs, it insults our very worth.”

Ambitious demands

The union has made an ambitious set of demands, seeking to reverse concessions the union agreed to from 2007 to 2009 as GM and Chrysler faced bankruptcy and needed federal bailouts to survive.

Union demands include pay increases of 40% over the four-year life of the contract, an end of a lower tier of pay and benefits for those hired since 2007, including a traditional pension plan for those workers rather than just current the 401(k) plans, and retiree health care coverage. The union also wants limits on part-time workers and forced overtime.

“We have high expectations and rightly so, and we expect to get there,” Fain told CNN. “Our members deserve their fair share.”

Fain also said that while the union and the Biden administration continue to talk about the state of the negotiations, he’s not expecting the administration to play a direct role in the talks,

“At the end of the day it’s up to the corporations. The corporations have to come to the table,” he said.

A summer of strikes

Despite the deal that averted a strike at UPS, this has been a summer of strikes. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike against major studios and streaming services since May 2, and SAG-AFTRA, which represents about 160,000 actors, went on strike against the same studios and services in mid-July. There is no end in sight for either strike. But beyond those major strikes, the number of significant strikes – those with more than 100 workers being out for a week or more – is up 40% in the last 12 months compared the same period a year earlier, according to a strike tracker compiled by Cornell University.

There are separate contracts with the three automakers, and so it is possible that the union could stay on the job at one or two of the automakers even if it strikes one or two of the others.

But Fain has repeatedly said the union is prepared to strike any automaker that hasn’t reached a deal come September 15, even if that means the first simultaneous strike against all three.

Some experts say they expect at least one strike come September 15, if not all three.

“I think there’s a 99% chance of a strike,” said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations school in Buffalo. He said rank-and-file member at the unions won’t be satisfied unless the companies agree to many of the union’s demands, which he thinks the companies will be reluctant to do.

“The expectations are so high,’ said Wheaton.

– CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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