Speaking to reporters, he offered the possibility of federal mediation, but Democrats urged the union to continue its fight.
The last national work stoppage at General Motors, in 2007, lasted about two days, but it’s unclear how long the current impasse might persist. The strike has caught the attention of numerous political leaders, particularly Democrats running for the White House. Both political parties believe the 2020 presidential election could hinge on the economy’s performance in a number of key states, including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a recent manufacturing revival in those states has shown signs of reversal.
GM has been a particular focus for the White House and lawmakers from both parties, who have questioned some of the company’s decisions, particularly related to plant closures.
The workers’ strike drew immediate support from many prominent liberals and Democrats, including 2020 contenders Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as a vague exhortation from Trump for the two sides to “Get together and make a deal!”
GM and UAW officials sat down on Monday to resume contract talks that had been ongoing since mid-July. Before the latest round of talks, the UAW released a letter it sent to GM that said the company had only made a serious offer just two hours before the contract expired Saturday night.
“We have many important topics to discuss including wage increases, the wage progression for new hires, health care and prescription drug benefits, skilled trades issues, jobs security, profit-sharing and the treatment of temporary employees,” the letter said.
Production at about 33 manufacturing plants in nine states and other work at 22 distribution warehouses was expected to be halted by the strike, making the action a severe impediment to GM’s ability to produce automobiles.
Workers are forgoing their paychecks for each day they do not work, though they will receive a weekly $250 stipend from a fund that UAW keeps for strikes.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re out here, no one wants to be here, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to secure a future for us. And not just us, but for future generations,” said Celso Duque, a 22-year veteran of GM at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, one of four that the company recently announced plans to shutter. “We hope it doesn’t go a long time. But I don’t think it will be like 2007, with a two-day strike.”
Duque said that priorities for the union included better wages, health care, job security and keeping plants like Hamtramck open.
Those factory closures, announced by the company in 2018, loom in the background of contract negotiations, as the strike unfolds at a fraught time for workers and the U.S. economy at large.
GM made $8.1 billion in profit after taxes last year, leading to workers receiving checks of up to $11,000 each as part of a profit-sharing agreement the company and its unionized workers struck in the previous contract.
But the plant closures, as the company continues to wind down car models like the Chevrolet Cruze that have fallen out of favor, and to prepare for an uncertain technological future, hinted at more troubling economic signs.
These broader concerns are likely acting on both parties as they seek to leverage a more favorable contract for the next four years, analysts say.
“GM is not sure what the demand for cars will be in the years ahead given possibility of autonomous vehicles and ride sharing,” Harry C. Katz, a professor of labor relations, law and history at Cornell University, said. “Meanwhile, workers are looking are recent profits from GM and they’re pretty strong. And they’ve seen executive pay get high. So they think times are good — happy times are back. They want to get their fair shake and also recover from deep concessions they made in 2011.”
Workers showed their solidarity at plants around the country as they closed Sunday night. At the Hamtramck factory, cars and trucks honked their horns as they passed picketers in red shirts. Cheers greeted workers as they left an assembly plant in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Parma, Ohio, according to local news reports.
The strike also comes amid mounting legal troubles for the UAW.
Vance Pearson, a regional director for the union, was arrested and charged last week with embezzlement, money laundering and other charges for using union money on lavish personal expenses, according to federal prosecutors. The FBI raided the home of Gary Jones, the president of the UAW, in connection with the probe.
That legal action represents a significant challenge for the union at the moment, experts said.
“Leaders have to show that they’re independent of management, and show they’re tough and, in some ways, respond to members’ concerns their leaders have been co-opted,” Katz said. “Having a strike is a way to show you’re tough and independent.”
GM said in a statement that it had offered to make $7 billion in investments and create 5,400 jobs, including introducing electric trucks, opening a battery cell manufacturing site and investing in eight existing facilities.
The company declined to give specifics, but said it had offered wage increases, continued profit-sharing and the ability to retain health-care benefits to its workers.
“We presented a strong offer that improves wages, benefits and grows U.S. jobs in substantive ways and it is disappointing that the UAW leadership has chosen to strike,” spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan said in a statement. “We have negotiated in good faith and with a sense of urgency. Our goal remains to build a strong future for our employees and our business.”
The company says its hourly workers make an average of $90,000 a year. The 49,000 full-time and temporary workers represented by the UAW make up about half of its workforce.
Analysts note that American automakers face higher labor costs than foreign car companies that have opened assembly plants in the United States, none of which are unionized.
According to the Center for Automotive Research, a nonpartisan think tank that studies the industry, GM pays an average of $13 more an hour for its workforce than foreign competitors that produce cars in the United States — the highest gap of the big three car companies.
“The automakers will be seeking to improve their competitive position vis-à-vis the international automakers in the United States during these negotiations,” the think tank said in a recent report.
UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg declined to give specifics on the union’s contractual demands but said UAW was prepared to weather a long strike if need be, with $750 million in the fund it stocks for worker pay.
“There are major issues out there, including wages, job security, quality health care, and seniority for temporary workers,” he said in a phone interview. “For our members, when GM was faced with bankruptcy in its darkest days, our membership stood up to help the company. All they want to know is if a very profitable company that has had record profits for years based on that sacrifice they made will stand up for them.”