But the automakers, determined not to fall back into old habits, are acting as if the current boom is already in the rearview mirror. Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles are preparing for a downturn as they try to narrow a labor cost gap that sees them pay up to $13 more an hour than their foreign counterparts.
The challenges don't stop at the bargaining table. Even if the two sides find compromise in forging a new pact, they likely face one of the most contentious paths to ratification in recent memory.
Trust in union leadership has been eroded by an ongoing corruption scandal that has resulted in eight convictions and landed former negotiators in prison for stealing money meant for the rank and file. The union has also gotten younger and less experienced with the collective bargaining process. Many members weren't around during the lean times and may be more likely to strike in search of a better deal. More than half of FCA's U.S. hourly workers started after 2011.
Add to that wild cards that include a president whose impulsive tweets and demands for U.S. investment could upend the delicate talks.
A source involved in the negotiations said reaching agreements will be deceptively hard, noting that even early, informal talks have been unusually strenuous. Bargaining formally begins Monday, July 15, with a handshake ceremony at Ford, followed by similar events Tuesday at General Motors and FCA. The talks will intensify after Labor Day and likely stretch into the fall. The current contracts, signed in 2015, expire in mid-September.
"It's going to be a difficult challenge," Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., told Automotive News.
"While things are still good, you have to prepare for the storm ahead. But a huge portion of the work force that will be voting on these contracts were hired after the bankruptcies and the recession. They don't know what down looks like."