I’ve always been a dreamer, and my dream jobs have never been realistically aligned with my talents, capabilities, and background. When my Toronto Talmud Torah elementary school teacher gave an assignment to write about our professional ambitions, my classmates wrote about wanting to become doctors, lawyers, dentists, and other professionals. I shared that I wanted to be a hockey player, following in the footsteps of my hero Dave Keon.
In junior high, when my Uncle Jerry, a top rock ‘n roll DJ in Cleveland, took me to work with him, working in radio became my job fantasy. Other job fantasies included being a widebody commercial airline pilot and heading the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
At this stage of my life, I’m looking for an opportunity I’d find especially meaningful, particularly if it allowed me to passionately address my concerns about the growing wealth disparity in America, the nation’s poor business and political leadership, and Michigan’s frightening decline. I’ve previously written why I’m forever indebted to Michigan.
That’s why leading the United Auto Workers union would be a dream come true.
I’m well aware the UAW deservedly has a dismal reputation with much of the American public, particularly given that two of its former leaders are rotting in jail. The stereotype some Americans unfairly and mistakenly have of UAW members is they are uneducated, lazy, and aren’t even deserving of their declining wages.
“Fire them all,” reader Joe C posted in a representative comment on a Detroit News story about upcoming UAW contract negotiations. “There are plenty of people that would take their places. 90% of their jobs can be done by a monkey.”
Shawn Fain, the current UAW chief who is living my dream, reinforces the public’s negative view of the UAW’s leadership. In a recent video, Fain was filmed throwing a Stellantis contract proposal into a garbage can, a flourish he mistakenly thought would get the management of the world’s third biggest automotive company to take him seriously and treat him with respect.
That Fain would publicly diss Stellantis is another example of his questionable leadership and judgment. Stellantis, based in the Netherlands, is run by an A-lister CEO named Carlos Tavaras who within the space of two years transformed the company into the world’s most profitable automaker. Stellantis was formed on January 16, 2021, with the merger of Fiat Chrysler and PSA Group; the company’s 14 global brands include Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati.
The profits Tavaras generated were responsible for the $14,760 profit sharing checks Stellantis’ UAW members received last year, which the Detroit News said was more generous than what GM and Ford paid its UAW workers in bonuses. (My recent commentary on Tavaras can be found here.)
Fain would be especially wise to mind his Ps and Qs in dealing with Stellantis. Most of Stellantis’ North American assembly plants are clustered in southeast Michigan with four in the Detroit area. The company has a Jeep Wrangler plant in neighboring Toledo. Stellantis closed its Jeep Cherokee plant in Belvidere, Illinois, earlier this year and hasn’t said publicly what it plans to do with the facility.
Stellantis expects more than 50% of its North American sales will be all-electric by the end of the decade, with 25 battery-electric options. The company has yet to disclose which, if any, of its existing U.S. plants it will retool for electrification, and so far, it hasn’t shown much love for Michigan.
Stellantis chose Indiana and Windsor, the Canadian city across from Detroit, for its electric battery manufacturing plants. The company’s electric Dodge will also be built in Windsor. Stellantis admirably took a pass on the rural Marshall, Michigan mega site on fertile farmland the state proffered, which Ford had no qualms accepting.
This is Stellantis’ first UAW contract rodeo, and one must imagine Tavaras wasn’t impressed with the union even before Fain’s childish antics. As reported by Breana Noble of the Detroit News, the Stellantis proposal Fain threw in the garbage included a need to address chronic worker absenteeism. Noble previously reported that absenteeism at Stellantis’ truck assembly plant in Warren, MI, was so acute the local UAW president warned his members, “Our LIVELIHOODS ARE IN JEOPARDY.” (emphasis his)
Thanks to President Biden and Congress, Fain has a lousy hand to play. Electric vehicles are supposedly the future, and the Inflation Reduction Act encourages U.S. automakers to move their EV operations to Mexico. That’s because EVs assembled in Mexico are eligible for lucrative tax subsidies when sold to U.S. consumers. GM’s electric Equinox and Blazer vehicles are manufactured in Mexico, and rest assured if the company reintroduces its electric Chevy Bolt vehicles, they, too, will be manufactured in Mexico, where Ford proudly manufactures its electric Mustang.
If Fain wants the Big Three auto managements to take him seriously, he needs strong public support and a more compelling message than simply his members deserve more money because the automakers are more profitable. Fain’s demand for a 40% wage increase over the life of a four-year contract isn’t as outrageous as it initially seems.
UAW workers are victims of the wealth reallocation trend that’s accelerated under the leadership of both political parties. Inflation and poor wage growth in recent years resulted in UAW members effectively earning less, ranging from $18 an hour to $32 an hour, depending on seniority. The UAW says starting wages are about $10 an hour lower than what they would be had they been adjusted for inflation.
Electric vehicles require few labor hours to assemble, and the automakers, who have long regarded their factory workers as widgets, want to fire as many as possible. The automakers also hope to cut costs by forming joint venture battery manufacturing operations and paying newly hired workers less than $17 an hour to do dangerous and health threatening work.
As reported by Bloomberg, working at battery plants is more akin to working at chemical factories than conventional auto-production facilities, where injuries are more likely to be from machinery accidents or repetitive tasks. A year ago, a contractor at GM’s Ohio battery plant was crushed by an automated crane and died from his injuries. Workers also had to extinguish a defective battery that caught fire. There are health risks handling and being exposed to lithium.
Fain needs to better educate the public how the Biden Administration, Congress, Michigan, and other states are using billions of dollars of taxpayer money to fund GM’s and Ford’s operations under the guise of creating “green energy” jobs. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spearheaded $1.7 billion in tax breaks so Ford could build its lithium battery plant in Marshall, supposedly creating 2,500 jobs paying less than $45,000. Whitmer calls them “good” jobs, but I’m confident speculating that her two daughters currently attending University of Michigan won’t be applying for them upon graduation.
Those who believe that monkeys could do most UAW jobs, should be asking why Whitmer didn’t allocate $1.7 billion in taxpayer incentives to train humans for jobs requiring more advanced skills and paying considerably better. A compelling argument could be made about monkeys being capable of doing a better job managing Michigan than Whitmer and her fellow legislators in Lansing.
Fain should be partnering with nurses and other professions who are becoming more militant and seeking to organize. The UAW was shamefully silent when nurses at Beaumont Royal Oak, a once nationally respected hospital in suburban Detroit, sought to organize three years ago but were bullied and intimidated by union busters the hospital spent nearly $2 million on to work their magic. The intimidation was such that the Michigan Nurses Association publicly vowed it would never again seek to organize a Beaumont hospital.
If I was Fain, I’d be looking for creative ways for UAW members to support and reward union-staffed hospitals. For the UAW’s Michigan members, that would also mean improved care. Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s teaching hospital, is unionized and is ranked among the best healthcare institutions in the country.
Fain seems to make no distinctions between Stellantis, GM, and Ford, when they are very different companies with varying qualities of executive leadership.
Stellantis’ Tavaras is very focused and has articulated a vision that’s so far has proven successful. He was among the few auto executives with the guts to challenge aggressive government EV mandates, but unlike GM CEO Mary Barra and Ford CEO Jim Farley who boasted they could achieve them, Tavaras is well ahead of them.
Although Stellantis has yet to introduce EVs for the U.S. market, it’s been quite successful selling them in Europe, where its EV sales increased more than 20% in the first half of the year. Stellantis’ electric Fiat became the best-selling full-electric car in Europe in the second quarter, and its electric Peugeot is the top selling EV in France. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, Stellantis ranks 5th among the global automakers for its electrification efforts, while GM ranks 9th and Ford ranks 12th.
Tavaras is a very decisive and clear communicator. He says EVs must be affordable if they are to catch on, but they cost 40% more to produce. Tavaras’ sweet spot is an EV selling for $25,000. The company’s electric Fiat is expected to launch next year in the U.S. with a base price of $30,000.
If I headed the UAW, I’d be seeking a private meeting with Tavaras and his top aides to gain a better understanding how labor could help Stellantis achieve its goals and objectives, in exchange for more generous wages and benefits. Stellantis’ and the UAW’s goals aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The traditional combative UAW stance isn’t conducive in their current economic environment, particularly when President Biden and Congress have sold out union auto workers. An agreement with Stellantis could serve as the template for a GM and Ford contract.
There are many who will argue that I’m naïve, and that the UAW’s rank and file would never buy into my strategy. Maybe so. But if Fain is allowed to continue with his antics, rest assured Stellantis, GM, and Ford will move their EV manufacturing to Mexico.
Unemployed UAW workers will have to live with the consequences. I, for one, will no longer feel sorry for them.