Automakers scaling back work

Detroit's three automakers agreed late Tuesday to partially shut down plants to reduce contact between workers and extend periods between shifts to allow for more cleaning amid the new coronavirus pandemic

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March 18, 2020 - 10:12 AM

DETROIT — Detroit’s three automakers agreed late Tuesday to partially shut down plants to reduce contact between workers and extend periods between shifts to allow for more cleaning amid the new coronavirus pandemic, the United Auto Workers said in a statement.

The steps came after rank-and-file members earlier this week shared their concerns about the conditions of their workplace and the resources in plants to address the outbreak; several even walked off the job. UAW President Rory Gamble threatened earlier Tuesday to take “any and all measures” to ensure his members’ safety after the companies denied his request to shut down plants for two weeks.

“All three companies have agreed to new measures that will increase adherence to CDC recommendations on social distancing in the workplace,” the UAW said. “Most importantly, all three companies have agreed to review and implement the rotating partial shutdown of facilities, extensive deep cleaning of facility and equipment between shifts, extended periods between shifts, and extensive plans to avoid member contact. They will be working on shift rotation to minimize risk.”

Across the country, schools, gyms, theaters, restaurants and more have closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and employers, including the Detroit Three automakers, have sent white-collar employees home to work remotely if they can.

“There’s anger growing on the floor,” Kenneth Larew, a 46-year-old line worker at General Motors Co.’s Spring Hill Assembly Plant in Tennessee, said earlier Tuesday. “If things aren’t resolved … you’re going to see more and more walkouts.”

Ford Motor Co.’s Chicago Assembly closed Tuesday because of a parts shortage, the automaker said. But widespread work stoppages could be significant economically. Several automakers, including Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, this week are shutting down plants in Europe as demand falls from strict government regulations and as closed borders complicate supply lines. The World Health Organization has named the continent as the new “epicenter” for the outbreak that originated in China.

“What’s absolutely certain is and what’s true and what’s been certain for weeks is we’re watching every location, we’re watching every region around the world in real-time,” Ford spokesman T.R. Reid said concerning the Dearborn automaker closing four European plants. “We’re going to act when it’s in the best interest for folks.”

The union on Sunday said it had created a task force with the automakers’ top leaders to discuss best practices in addressing the coronavirus and workers’ health and safety. Gamble said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., were “instrumental” in bringing the companies to the table.

“These are men and women who are scared,” Dingell said. “No one appreciates them. They are frontline workers. If we want to get what we need, we need them. They need to be safe.”

GM and Fiat Chrysler also are in the middle of a contentious legal battle with GM accusing FCA of civil racketeering. GM says a bribery conspiracy corrupted three rounds of bargaining and cost it “billions.” FCA has called the allegations “meritless,” and requested they be dismissed.

Gamble proposed the two-week shutdown on Sunday. The parties agreed the companies would take 48 hours to develop measures to ensure worker safety.

“I want to be very clear here: If the UAW leadership on the task force, myself and Vice Presidents Cindy Estrada, Terry Dittes and Gerald Kariem, are not satisfied that our members will be protected, we will take this conversation to the next level,” Gamble wrote ahead of the talks.

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