DETROIT — UAW President Rory Gamble doesn't believe the Detroit 3 should mandate that its factory workers be vaccinated against COVID-19, but he hopes to make the shots widely available and encourage union members to get one.
"UAW members are American," he said in an interview. "In America, you get people with different religious beliefs, you have people who are just of the opinion that they don't take any vaccines at all. We think that should be respected. We're very willing to sit down and work out with the companies going forward how we manage those issues."
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this week said companies can, with limited exceptions for medical or religious reasons, legally require employees to get the vaccine, which is in the early stages of distribution. But Gamble said he thinks General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will approach the process much like they handle yearly flu shots, which are not mandatory.
"We're working out trying to make it readily available to our members, whether at the workplace or through a drive-through center," he told Automotive News. "However we can make it convenient for those who choose to take it, we're having discussions with the companies for how to do just that."
While no firm plans are in place, the Detroit 3 have said they're working on ways to get employees access to the vaccine once it becomes available and are in close contact with health officials. Ford last month ordered a dozen ultra-cold freezers to store the vaccine being produced by Pfizer in western Michigan, Reuters reported.
Ford, in announcing the purchase of the freezers, said the vaccine would be voluntary, while GM on Friday said it would also make it voluntary. FCA has not yet announced its plans.
The coronavirus tore through the industry this spring, shuttering North American manufacturing facilities for two months and killing a number of U.S. autoworkers. Since restarting production, automakers have implemented strict safety measures — including mask-wearing, temperature scans and social distancing — while the UAW has continued to advocate for the deployment of rapid testing to further ensure member safety.
Gamble said he was frustrated with President Donald Trump's administration for not providing a clearer timetable on when union workers might be able to receive the vaccine. He said he looks forward to working with President-elect Joe Biden's administration and would advocate for his members to be near the front of the line as it becomes available.
"It's been proven the automotive industry is very essential to the economy of this country," he said. "Our members are on the front lines, working in environments that are really scary as it relates to how the virus spreads. I totally agree health care workers should get it first, but as this thing comes on line in waves, we need to consider labor in this country that goes to work every day and fights in fear of this virus to keep this country moving."
Gamble said he planned to take the vaccine — "on public TV if I could" — as a way to protect himself and encourage his members to do the same. This year, Gamble missed a Biden campaign event after a family member he had been in contact with became ill, though a subsequent virus test came back negative.
"I will step up, and I think it's essential for my members to see me do that," he said. "Those in leadership need to make their decisions about that. I think in my position for something that will protect my members coming to work, I'd rather take the chance of taking the vaccine than not taking it."