DETROIT — In about 72 hours, a wholesale shutdown of North American vehicle production by the Detroit 3 went from unthinkable to unavoidable.
The automakers initially resisted such a drastic step when UAW President Rory Gamble proposed preemptively halting assembly lines to protect workers from the fast-spreading coronavirus. Executives acknowledged the situation was serious but wanted more time to formulate plans.
As a chaotic workweek got underway, with most salaried employees already clocking in from home, those executives began feeling the fear and anxiety rippling through plants. Workers began missing shifts to self-quarantine because a family member had the virus. In multiple states where the automakers have plants, bars and restaurants were ordered to close.
The week ended with plants beginning to go dark, sending shock waves through the supplier community and cutting off the flow of new vehicles to dealerships. Executives who started the month touting upcoming electric vehicles were now promising to explore whether their plants could become ad-hoc producers of hospital ventilators instead.
How all of that happened was recounted to Automotive News by five people with knowledge of last week's events but who were not authorized to describe them publicly.
By the time Gamble first called Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford the morning of March 15, a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles worker in Kokomo, Ind., had already tested positive for COVID-19, prompting questions and concerns from employees at plants nationwide. Tweets and Facebook posts reflected anger and anxiety from a union membership that wondered why the Detroit 3 had issued a work-from-home mandate for white-collar employees while workers on the line waited for cleaning supplies to arrive.
With cases soaring throughout the nation, it appeared inevitable the crisis would soon reach U.S. plants, where employees frequently touch shared vehicle parts and equipment and often work in close proximity.
The UAW's three vice presidents had already been having discussions with their counterparts at Ford, General Motors and FCA, but Gamble wanted the CEOs from all three to meet and discuss their collective response.
That was easier said than done.
The heads of the Detroit 3 were last seen together in 2017, when GM's Mary Barra, Ford's Mark Fields and FCA's Sergio Marchionne met with President Donald Trump at the White House. A racketeering lawsuit in which GM accused FCA of gaining an unfair advantage during collective bargaining has left bad blood between the two and complicated any collaboration.
After a lengthy conversation with Gamble, Bill Ford placed phone calls to Barra and FCA Chairman John Elkann. Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., also made calls urging the companies to coordinate efforts.
At noon Sunday, Gamble, his vice presidents, Bill Ford, the three CEOs and their manufacturing chiefs dialed into a conference call that was described by multiple participants as respectful and collaborative.
Gamble asked for a two-week shutdown, according to people on the call. Ford, two of the people said, was willing to cut shifts, something the two other automakers were hesitant to do. In the end, they agreed only on a joint statement announcing the formation of a task force and a 48-hour window to figure out what to do.