Apr 24, 2020 - Economy

Auto workers want more testing before reopening economy

An illustration of a hand holding a Q-tip.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Unionized auto workers say General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler shouldn't restart production until there is sufficient testing to show it is safe to go back to work.

Why it matters: President Trump and a handful of governors are pushing to reopen the economy, while losses mount at companies whose operations are suspended. But consumers are wary about lifting stay-at-home restrictions too soon, and if worried employees don't show up either, it will be next to impossible to get America back up and running any time soon.

What's happening: Many automakers had been targeting May 4 to begin a gradual ramp up of production under strict new health safety protocols (See item 4 below). GM and Ford had not announced a date, but were expected to launch around the same time.

  • Some of those plans started to unravel late in the week as governors in manufacturing-heavy states, including Illinois and Michigan, signaled they would extend their stay-at-home orders beyond April 30.
  • Both are part of a seven-state Midwestern regional plan to reopen businesses.

The UAW wants to see more testing before plants reopen, telling companies that early May is "too soon and too risky" for its members.

  • "At this point in time, the UAW does not believe the scientific data is conclusive that it is safe to have our members back in the workplace," said UAW President Rory Gamble in a statement Thursday.
  • "We have not done enough testing to really understand the threat our members face."

The big picture: Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, says the U.S. is "just not there yet" in terms of reaching the testing capacity needed to reopen large parts of the economy.

  • Trump told reporters Thursday that he doesn't agree with Fauci's assessment. "I think we're doing a great job on testing," the president said.
  • The number of coronavirus tests being completed daily is not enough to relax stay-at-home orders, medical experts say.
  • A number of governors said this week that there are shortages of key testing ingredients like swabs and reagents that are preventing their states from meeting demand.

Between the lines: The UAW, while smaller and less powerful than back in its heyday, still has the clout to influence industry decisions.

  • Not so for many non-union employees; if they fail to show up for work because they're afraid of getting sick, they could be out of a job.
  • It's why the coronavirus is inspiring a new labor movement to draw attention to the health risks employees face at work during the pandemic.
  • "Union representation is not just about wages and benefits. It's about the terms of work," says Kristin Dziczek, vice president of Industry, Labor & Economics at the Center for Automotive Research.

The bottom line: It could be several more weeks — or longer — until the auto industry starts up again.

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