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GM's Mary Barra opens up about relationship with UAW

General Motors CEO Mary Barra said this week that GM leaders continue to build a strong relationship with the United Auto Workers after a turbulent set of negotiations this past fall.

She also said the company is going into 2024 aiming to build more electric vehicles and resolve the troubles at its self-driving car subsidiary Cruise after an autonomous vehicle struck and dragged a pedestrian in San Francisco, prompting California regulators to shut it down there.

Barra tackled those topics when speaking to journalists Monday evening at an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit.

She also addressed the status of GM's all-electric future, revealed when the next-generation Chevrolet Bolt will come out and that GM expects to make public the findings in the study on the Cruise crisis — due to be completed in the first quarter. On Friday a California administrative law judge ordered Cruise to explain why it it should not be fined for "misleading" California regulators about the pedestrian accident.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaks to a crowd of journalists during a fireside chat with APA president Mike Wayland at the Gem Theatre in Detroit on Monday, December 4, 2023.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaks to a crowd of journalists during a fireside chat with APA president Mike Wayland at the Gem Theatre in Detroit on Monday, December 4, 2023.

"One of the things we've realized with some of the challenges — lessons learned from a Cruise perspective is transparency, working with regulators et cetera," Barra said. "But I can tell you with the GM team we've now leaned in with the expertise we have from a government-relations perspective, a legal, a communications perspective and we're very focused on righting the ship there because this is technology that can make the way we move from point A to point B safer."

Barra on Fain and the UAW: 'We're moving forward now'

Last month, UAW members at GM ratified a new 4 1/2 year contract with the automaker that Barra called "historic." Last week, GM said the labor contract will boost its labor costs by about $1.5 billion in 2024.

The contract came after a 46-day strike across all three Detroit automakers and the negotiations with the UAW's newly elected President Shawn Fain and Vice President Mike Booth were often filled with tension. Barra accused the union of "theatrics" and was said to have dismissed the idea of a closing handshake when the deal with GM was done. Fain was openly critical of Barra's $29 million compensation in 2022.

But Barra said despite the rhetoric, GM wants to reward its employees for their hard work especially coming into the factories during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"You're always going to have a different challenge in negotiations based on the leader of the UAW and certainly we saw that," Barra said. Fain "was elected with a mission, he stayed true to that mission. We had a lot of conversations, there were times we had different points of view. We always kept talking, we never stopped talking and that's how we got to a resolution. As we move forward, that's still important."

While Fain has indicated he plans to continue to be aggressive in his demands of automakers, Barra said she believes GM and the UAW can have a productive relationship going forward.

"Every relationship, it takes two people to have a relationship but we're going to continue to engage and share about the business, make sure they understand the opportunities, the challenges," Barra said. "I do think there's an opportunity and at GM we'll certainly be making the effort. I will say I've had many meaningful conversations already."

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press on Friday, Fain was complimentary of Barra, too, saying: "I have a lot of respect for her. She worked her way up through the ranks in the company ... she knows the business. She’s a very smart woman. We have different agendas as to who we represent.”

UAW President Shawn Fain sits at his office desk for a portrait at the UAW Solidarity House in Detroit on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023.
UAW President Shawn Fain sits at his office desk for a portrait at the UAW Solidarity House in Detroit on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023.

Barra said she and Gerald Johnson, GM's executive vice president of global manufacturing, have regular meetings with Booth and Fain and will continue to talk with them because "we have to have an understanding of what he's trying to do for the people he represents, but also ultimately understanding without a strong company, we don't provide the great jobs that we have."

She said there were lessons learned during negotiations, but declined to provide details.

"If you don't go back and say, 'Hmm, I would have done this a little differently,' you gotta learn," Barra said. "But on balance there was a process and a rhythm that we were going to end up following. We did that and we're moving forward now."

The UAW is now looking to organize 13 nonunion automakers across the country, a move that would narrow the labor cost gap between GM and nonunion automakers. When asked if Barra supports the UAW's efforts to organize nonunion competitors, she said, "I don't think it matters what I think. They have an aggressive agenda that I'll be watching, but my opinion on it doesn't really matter."

GM's EV future

Barra also told the audience that the next generation of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, which will use GM's Ultium propulsion system, will arrive in 2025. She did not provide any other details about it or where it would be built. GM plans to end the current Bolt and Bolt EUV by year-end so that it can retool the Orion Assembly plant in Orion Township to make electric pickups by late 2025.

Barra said the automaker remains on goal to be all-electric by 2035, but ultimately that timeline will be driven by consumer demand.

2023 Bolt EV side profile while driving on an urban city street
2023 Bolt EV side profile while driving on an urban city street

"A lot of early EV adopters, they're buying an EV but it's not their only vehicle. We're at a point right now and making this transitions where EVs have to be beautiful, affordable, have the right range and there has to be charging infrastructure that supports them," Barra said. "We're on that journey. We'll continue to make progress. When you're making this kind of transformation, I don't think anybody thought it would be a straight line up, it's going to have ups and downs."

Barra said GM has to remain "super focused on what the customer wants" as it rolls out its EVs.

As the Free Press reported last week, Barra told investors she was "disappointed" in GM's EV production. GM has worked to resolve some production problems its had with battery modules to better deliver EVs next year compared with this year when GM's new EVs on its Ultium platform such as the Cadillac Lyriq and Chevrolet Blazer EV trickled out to customers.

GM makes battery cells through its joint venture with LG Energy Solution at their Ultium Cells LLC plant in Warren, Ohio. GM assembles the modules at its assembly plants. GM is building two more Ultium Cells plants: One in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and one in Lansing. Both are expected to open sometime next year.

GM pulling back on 'growth initiatives'

Last week GM said it would significantly reduce its spending on Cruise next year as the automaker awaits the results of independent studies on how Cruise responded to an Oct. 2 accident that left a pedestrian critically injured. GM CFO Paul Jacobson also said GM is pulling back its growth of BrightDrop, which is GM's electric delivery van subsidiary. GM also is reining in expansion of GM Energy, a new business unit GM announced earlier this year that would provide vehicle-to-home bidirectional charging technology, stationary storage and additional energy management products to residential customers.

More: General Motors takes steps towards electric vehicle profitability

More: UAW's Shawn Fain is onto a new campaign he calls 'Stand Up 2.0'

Barra said these are "growth initiatives" that GM still believes in but "as we really focused on cost, to say, 'What makes sense,' and with each we've found where we think it has the most success to move forward."

General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaks to a crowd of journalists during a fireside chat with APA president Mike Wayland at the Gem Theatre in Detroit on Monday, December 4, 2023.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaks to a crowd of journalists during a fireside chat with APA president Mike Wayland at the Gem Theatre in Detroit on Monday, December 4, 2023.

Barra again addressed Cruise, which has halted all operations in the three cities in which it was running a robotaxi service: San Francisco, Austin, Texas, and Phoenix. Barra said GM will learn more about how to proceed with Cruise going forward when it reviews the findings from the independent studies being done.

But it is clear that expanding to more cities will require not just working technology but "what relationship do you have with the regulators at the local, state and federal level and first responders. To make sure we have the right relationship with the community and then attract the customers. We learned a lot from what we've done and there's a path forward."

Contact Jamie L. LaReau: jlareau@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletterBecome a subscriber.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: GM's Mary Barra opens up about relationship with UAW, EV plans

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