DETROIT — With dollars and declarations, the UAW is signaling that it's prepared for a long and costly strike to get what it wants.
Are Detroit's automakers prepared for that, too?
The answer could define the course and tone of collective bargaining negotiations set to begin this summer, and it could determine how much pressure automakers face on their profitability.
The talks were already expected to be contentious, with General Motors and Ford announcing job cuts even as they recorded billions of dollars in profits for 2018.
UAW leaders did nothing to change that perception last week, pledging to flex every muscle in their fight for improved wages and benefits and a role in the auto industry's high-tech transformation.
"We will go into this bargaining session using every tool we have to protect the rights and wages of our members," UAW President Gary Jones told reporters after the union's Special Convention on Collective Bargaining, seeking to rally a restive rank and file in the wake of a financial scandal involving union leaders. "We will do what we need to do. We will use every ounce in our leverage, every last ounce."
Jones told more than 900 union delegates from across the U.S. that leaders and negotiators were "preparing for a conflict." The mobilization included boosting the weekly strike pay for members 25 percent to $250, effective immediately, and raising it to $275 beginning in January — which would be months after a Sept. 14 contract deadline. UAW members would receive health care coverage during a strike.
The costs could escalate quickly, on both sides, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research.
"Strikes, even local ones, can be extremely costly," she said. "Strikes are a last resort. It has to be. Any sustained outage is going to be painful for membership."
And yet, Dziczek said, Jones' comments along with simmering labor tensions in the industry suggest that the possibility of a strike this year is "pretty high."
National strikes have been scarce in recent decades, aside from brief actions at Chrysler and GM in 2007. The UAW's last prolonged national strike — 67 days — occurred against GM in 1970.
The union has been more tactical in recent years, conducting "bottleneck" strikes, in which workers halt production at key plants, creating a ripple effect in other operations. Such a tactic limits the union's cost for strike pay and shifts the cost of associated layoffs to the automaker.