General Motors chief assails UAW strikers in sign labour strife could escalate

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The chief executive of the US’s largest auto manufacturer lambasted the autoworkers union on Friday after their leadership rejected Detroit carmakers’ final offer and triggered a strike to try for a better deal.

Thousands of members of the United Auto Workers walked out of three plants at midnight after their contract expired, and were met by the cheers of their fellow union members and supporters. The factories — a Ford plant in Michigan, a General Motors plant in Missouri and a Stellantis plant in Ohio — produce trucks and sport utility vehicles that are popular products.

“I’m extremely frustrated and disappointed,” GM’s chief executive Mary Barra told CNBC. “We don’t need to be on strike right now. We put a historic offer on the table.”

Bara added that “every negotiation takes on the personality of the leader”, a reference to Shawn Fain, who won the UAW presidency promising a more aggressive stance against the carmakers.

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The UAW is asking for a wage increase to 36 per cent over four years, while the carmakers are offering no more than 20 per cent. The union also wants to end the two-tier wage system, where newer workers take four years to reach the same pay as longtime employees, which carmakers have opposed.

The strike, already unprecedented by hitting all of the big three carmakers at once, could expand to more factories and distribution centres, depending on how the union fares at the bargaining table. The UAW has named it the “Stand Up Strike”, referring to the 1930s Sit Down Strike that helped build the nascent union, and the larger US labour movement.

“If we need to go all out, we will,” Fain said on Thursday. “Everything is on the table.”

The strike represents a political headache for Joe Biden, who has cast himself as the most pro-union US president in recent memory and is now caught between his desire to support the demands of the workers and fears of an economic impact in the politically pivotal industrial Midwest.

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On Friday morning, the White House said Biden would speak about the contract negotiations later in the day.

Meanwhile, many congressional Democrats were siding with the UAW in the stand-off with the US carmakers. Elissa Slotkin, a moderate Democratic member of Congress from Michigan who is running for an open Senate seat next year, said she would join the picket line this weekend.

“For the last two years, we’ve passed bills to incentivise American manufacturing and bring supply chains home from places like China,” she said. “But the companies that benefit from these policies need to do right by the workers who make their success possible.”

Some Republicans also showed sympathy towards the striking workers. “Rooting for the auto workers across our country demanding higher wages and an end to political leadership’s green war on their industry,” JD Vance, the Ohio Republican senator close to former president Donald Trump, wrote on social media.

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Barra also appeared on CNN on Friday where she defended her pay, which she said was tied to company performance. The UAW, in response to Barra’s appearance, said on social media that, “during the eight and a half minutes [Barra] appeared on CNN this morning, she ‘earned’ more money than any autoworker makes in a full work day. And that’s how the Big Three wants to keep it.”