Auto Workers Union Presses Companies to Close US Factories

UAW wants Detroit's three automakers to idle their factories for two weeks to keep its members safe.

Vehicles enter the United States as a minivan drives to Canada in the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel in Detroit on Monday, March 16.
Vehicles enter the United States as a minivan drives to Canada in the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel in Detroit on Monday, March 16.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

DETROIT (AP) — The United Auto Workers union wants Detroit's three automakers to shut down their factories for two weeks to keep its members safe from the spreading coronavirus.

But union President Rory Gamble says in an email to members obtained by The Associated Press that the companies were not willing to stop production. Gamble says the union gave Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler two days to put together plans to safeguard workers. That period ends Tuesday afternoon.

The companies and union will meet this evening to discuss the safety measures. But Gamble says if the union isn't satisfied it will take unspecified further action to protect members.

“These companies will be put on notice that the UAW will use any and all measures to protect our brothers and sisters who are working in their facilities,” Gamble said in the message.

The three companies employ about 150,000 auto workers at dozens of factories and parts depots across the country. Most of the manufacturing footprint is concentrated in the industrial Midwest, but the companies also have plants in Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and other states.

The dispute comes as union members complained that continued work at the plants would expose them to the virus.

Industry analysts have said it will be difficult to keep the factories open for very long as the COVID-19 virus spreads. Fiat Chrysler, Ford, Volkswagen, Daimler AG and PSA Groupe have closed their European factories to help stop the virus from spreading.

“There's very few industries where you get this many people together and they all touch the same things,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of labor and manufacturing for the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank in Michigan.

GM believes it can run the plants safely with preventive measure it has put in place since January and enhancements it is working on, spokesman Jim Cain said. Fiat Chrysler says it already has put “extensive protocols” in place to ensure the health and safety of workers. “We are continuing to carefully monitor the situation and are making improvements as needed,” spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said in a statement. Messages were left seeking comment from Ford.

Analysts expect U.S. auto sales to take a nosedive as people stay home to avoid other people. The industry likely has enough inventory to satisfy slower demand due to the virus, they have said. Ford reported Tuesday that sales had fallen in Europe and that parts supplies have been interrupted.

On Sunday, the union and companies announced they would form a task force to deal with worker safety as the plants continued operating. Gamble says in the email that the group will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Seventeen workers at a Fiat Chrysler factory in Warren, Michigan, walked off their jobs in the paint shop Monday over concerns about the novel coronavirus. A worker at an FCA transmission plant in Kokomo, Indiana, tested positive for the virus last week. He and nearby co-workers were told to stay home and his work area was deep cleaned. Production continued at both factories.

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