In the midst of a tumultuous labor dispute, the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike has taken on the appearance of a high-stakes “Survivor” game, putting the Detroit Three automakers in a precarious position as they grapple with weekly decisions on which factories to hit next. This protracted labor standoff, now in its 19th day, has witnessed a growing number of layoffs, financial losses, and escalating tensions between the union and automakers.
UAW President Shawn Fain has turned the contract negotiation process with General Motors (GM), Ford, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) into a media spectacle. The agreement reached with Volvo Group-owned Mack Trucks, which raised wages significantly for almost 4,000 UAW members, serves as a template that the major automakers are watching closely. They are keen to decipher how they can navigate this precarious situation.
At present, the UAW appears to hold the upper hand, although it is not without its own share of pain. Both GM and Ford have recently announced indefinite layoffs affecting 500 workers at four plants, citing the detrimental effects of the ongoing strikes. Financial analysts have also begun to assess the damage, with JP Morgan estimating that GM has incurred a $191 million operating profit loss, and Ford has suffered a $145 million hit in the third quarter of this year. While these figures are substantial, they pale in comparison to the potential combined pre-tax profits of up to $26 billion projected for GM and Ford this year.
Nevertheless, the daily cost of these strikes is poised to escalate with each passing week. The true test will come if the UAW decides to strike at factories responsible for manufacturing highly profitable vehicles such as Ford, Chevrolet, and Ram pickup trucks, or luxury models like GM’s Cadillac Escalade. Given the current pace, it might take the UAW weeks to target these critical facilities.
UAW President Fain has emphasized the union’s ability to escalate and keep automakers guessing about their next move, causing confusion within the companies. The UAW has demonstrated the effectiveness of its strategy by launching limited strikes at all three major automakers simultaneously, rather than negotiating with them individually, as was the norm in the past. The CEOs of GM and Ford have accused Fain of misrepresenting the state of negotiations and spending too much time in the media rather than at the bargaining table.
The rules of this labor game are clear: automakers must make substantial concessions to satisfy union demands by each week’s deadline to prevent a wider strike and further revenue losses. As Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California Berkeley, puts it, “Now, if you don’t give something that the union wants, you will have another plant on strike.”
Amid these labor tensions, there is frustration and concern from the automakers’ leadership. GM CEO Mary Barra has accused the UAW of pitting companies against each other, ultimately benefiting non-union competition. Ford CEO Jim Farley expressed worry about the fate of suppliers to Ford’s Michigan Assembly plant and the thousands of jobs at risk, especially due to the standoff over battery plants. Ford’s plan for four EV battery plants in the U.S. has become a sticking point, as the UAW seeks to ensure that non-union, lower-paid positions at these facilities do not replace existing UAW-represented jobs related to combustion powertrains.
The future of this labor dispute remains uncertain, intentionally so. The UAW is engaging in new bargaining sessions with GM and Stellantis, while company negotiators are keen to learn the specifics of the tentative deal with Mack Trucks. As tensions continue to mount, the outcome of this high-stakes “Survivor” game remains shrouded in uncertainty, with the consequences of further strikes and losses hanging in the balance for all parties involved.