DETROIT — Among the Detroit 3, the UAW may have the toughest time negotiating a new labor contract with General Motors, the company it chose last week as its initial target, but it also stands to gain the most from GM.
Over the past four years, GM has amassed the largest profit among the Detroit 3, a fact not lost on union leaders making a case for raises and other benefits. GM also has the lowest U.S. plant capacity utilization rates, leaving numerous options for the UAW to wrangle new product commitments and potentially convince GM to save a plant or two among those it "unallocated" last November.
That stands in contrast to Ford, which already builds more vehicles and employs more workers in the U.S. than any other automaker, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which has the highest capacity utilization of the Detroit 3 and this year announced plans to open a new assembly plant in Detroit.
"There's definitely more opportunity there," Jeff Schuster, LMC Automotive's president of Americas operations and global vehicle forecasts, told Automotive News. "GM has more brands, and it's making a wider push into electrification and mobility, so there's a little bit more in play.
"But the flip side is they still have some slack in the system that if they dig their heels in could certainly cause some problems. I expect we're going to see some fireworks."
With just days remaining before the UAW's current four-year pacts expire Sept. 14, representatives on both sides are sitting down to negotiate in earnest.
Talks were "progressing slowly," UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said in a Sept. 5 letter to officials who represent GM plants around the country.
The union has called leaders of its GM locals to Detroit for a Sept. 15 meeting, saying they could be asked to either vote on a tentative deal, review the company's latest offer or take other actions as necessary.
Colin Lightbody, a former FCA negotiator who's now president of a consulting firm, said subcommittees will continue meeting until top leaders ultimately step in to consummate a deal.
"You're feeling each other out," he said. "You get hundreds of demands, so you're trying to weave your way through all of them to find which ones they're really serious about and boil that down to about five or 10 items."
Those items, from the union's perspective, likely include protections to health care benefits, a quicker path to top wages for newer employees and more opportunities for temporary workers to attain full-time status.
In addition, Lightbody, who has been involved in negotiations since 2003, said he thinks any deal with GM will potentially need to include the reallocation of product to at least one of the plants GM chose to idle.
"I think it's going to be very difficult to ratify an agreement the first time through," he said. "That would look like a real win for the union."
Since GM in November announced its plan to close five North American plants and put the jobs of thousands of workers in jeopardy, the UAW has railed against the decision, with union members staging protests outside the Detroit auto show in January and the July handshake ceremony that formally kicked off negotiations. UAW leaders have vowed to use this round of bargaining to reopen some plants, even after GM entered discussions with electric vehicle producer Workhorse Inc. to sell the plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and secured jobs at other locations for most of the displaced workers.
The union's salvaging efforts will likely center around one site, experts say: Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly.