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The UAW vs. The Big Three: Why the union's wish list isn't 'going to happen'

UAW demands deemed 'suicidal,' but union says workers have made 'enormous' sacrifices over the last 15 years.

UAW president Shawn Fain raised some eyebrows during a Facebook Live video address in early August to the union faithful.

In an hour-long talk, Fain, a 20-year UAW veteran and a former shop chair at Stellantis' Kokomo, Indiana, plant, told members what he had planned for the Big Three automakers — GM (GM), Ford (F), and Stellantis (STLA), formerly Chrysler — for this year's contract negotiations. The bottom line was this: After all the sacrifices the UAW made over the years, the days of rolling over were done. The bill was due.

"I’ve been told I am crazy to raise member expectations this high as we head into bargaining," Fain said in his address. "I refuse to allow employers, the billionaire class, and sellouts to play on our fears."

The stakes couldn't be higher for the UAW and the Big Three.

The current contract ends on September 14, at which point a work stoppage could occur if they don't strike a deal. The negotiations, if Fain's speech was any indication, will be the most contentious in recent memory. Why? Fain and current UAW leadership believe the union has given up too much in the past.

The increased rancor has already made a mark. Shares of GM, Ford, and Stellantis all dropped steeply last week, largely because Wall Street is concerned that a work stoppage would seriously impact automakers as they navigate a generational and costly electric transformation.

'These demands aren’t going to happen'

The demands set out by Fain and UAW leadership include "substantial wage increases," which amount to a 46% rise over three years; eliminating compensation tiers for new and old workers (which the UPS Teamsters secured); restoring cost of living adjustments; providing a new pension plan; and reducing work weeks to 32 hours from the standard 40.

Making such demands in public ahead of contract talks isn't typical for the UAW and the Big Three automakers.

In the past, the UAW and Big Three went behind closed doors to negotiate after a contract was hammered out. The UAW then presented the proposed contract to its members for a vote.

Publicly releasing contract demands could backfire for the union, putting pressure on the leadership to avoid compromise and therefore up the likelihood of an impasse with the Big Three negotiators.

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain talks with autoworkers outside the General Motors Factory Zero plant.
No more Mr. Nice Guy: United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain outside the General Motors Factory Zero plant in Hamtramck, Mich., last month. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya.) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But the tough-guy talk may be a plus: Fain, in essence, may be preparing the rank and file for a long, rough fight — a fight brought on by the costs facing the Big Three given these demands. According to Bloomberg, the cost of the UAW demands could amount to $80 billion over the course of the contract, which typically lasts three to four years.

Fain's demands caught the automakers' leadership off guard.

"Everyone understands these demands aren’t going to happen — it would be suicidal for the companies to agree to this," one industry source told Yahoo Finance.

The UAW's wish list would amount to $25 billion-$30 billion per automaker over the life of the contract.

"That adds $35 to $40 per hour to active labor cost — an increase of roughly 60%," the source said. The impact being that automakers would return to the "bankruptcy era" and more than double the labor costs for GM, Ford, and Stellantis versus non-union automakers like Tesla (TSLA).

The Stellantis sign is seen outside the Chrysler Technology Center.
Less at stake because of its international blue print? The Chrysler Technology Center (Stellantis), in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

When reached for comment, a UAW spokesperson noted the industry source's take misrepresented a few key points.

"The Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor estimates that labor is just 5.1% of the cost of the average vehicle. That's a very important data point to take into account when the automakers claim that our demands will be catastrophic," UAW spokesperson Jim McNeil said.

McNeil also noted that the rising MSRPs of Big Three vehicles have not been driven by labor. "[A recent study] published by the BLS shows that dealer markups have been driving up the costs of new cars, NOT labor costs."

Finally, McNeil pointed to a recent statement made by Fain talking about the costs borne by UAW workers over the past decade and a half.

"Overall, the starting pay for a Big Three worker today is almost $21,000 less than it was in 2007 when adjusted for inflation," the statement said. "UAW members made enormous sacrifices to save the automakers during the Great Recession, but we’ve never been made whole."

A new sign is unveiled at General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Hamtramck, Mich. The automaker is investing $2.2 billion at its plant to produce a variety of all-electric trucks and SUVs. GM's first all-electric truck will be a pickup with production scheduled to begin in late 2021. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
A strong sell from Wall Street: The GM Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A 'good faith' process

For its part, Big Three leadership has been striking more of a conciliatory tone, at least publicly.

GM President Mark Reuss recently told Yahoo Finance that GM is negotiating a deal "that works for everybody in good faith.”

Meanwhile, Ford Chairman Bill Ford has said that the UAW isn’t the "enemy" and that he wants to find common ground.

But Stellantis, which just this week saw Fain throw its contract proposal into the trash in another Facebook Live video, said the UAW needs to focus on "reality."

"[The UAW] demands could endanger our ability to make decisions in the future that provide job security for our employees," Stellantis North America COO Mark Stewart said in a statement to employees, according to Reuters. "This is a losing proposition for all of us."

Wall Street wary

Wall Street, it seems, is anticipating the worst.

Last week CFRA analyst Garrett Nelson double-downgraded GM to Strong Sell and slashed his price target to $28 from $40. Nelson wrote in a client note, "the growing risk of a UAW strike, given reports that the company and union remain extremely far apart in labor negotiations ... [and] newly-elected UAW President Shawn Fain appears to be aggressive and eager to make his mark with the Detroit Three."

Nelson also said that the last UAW strike in 2019, which lasted 40 days, impacted GM’s earnings by $1.89 a share.

FILE - United Auto Workers members walk in the Labor Day parade in Detroit, Sept. 2, 2019. The new president of the United Auto Workers gave his strongest warning yet Friday, June 16, 2023, that the union is preparing for strikes against Detroit’s three automakers. In a Facebook Live appearance, Shawn Fain said the union is in a strong position to make major gains in talks with Stellantis, Ford and General Motors. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
"GM and Ford may be in the penalty box for" a while: United Auto Workers members walk in the Labor Day parade a few years back.(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Morningstar automotive analyst David Whiston echoed those concerns, particularly for GM and Ford, which are more tied to the UAW compared to Stellantis, which has a bigger international labor presence.

"GM and Ford may be in the penalty box for a while. Wall Street hates uncertainty," Whiston said. "This is not a normal negotiation, both in style and the demands they are asking."

"This is a different time," longtime Detroit Free Press automotive writer Eric Lawrence told Yahoo Finance.

"The union is talking in terms that they probably haven't talked in a long time. They've kind of come out swinging. They've kind of put the automakers on notice, and they've told the workers that they expect to fight for a lot of this contract."

Pras Subramanian is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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