Sep 21, 2023 - Economy

UAW official says union creating "chaos" for automakers, leaked messages show

UAW picketers outside Stellantis headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich. Photo: Matthew Hatcher via Getty Images

Leaked messages from an aide of UAW president Shawn Fain about the union's strike strategy against Detroit automakers say the UAW is inflicting "reputations damage and operational chaos" at GM, Ford and Stellantis.

Why it matters: The messages, in a private group chat on X (formerly Twitter) shine a new light on the union's hardball tactics under a new strategy orchestrated in part by outside labor activists who joined the UAW staff — and Fain's inner circle — shortly after his election in March.

  • Screenshots of the leaked messages from UAW communications director Jonah Furman, first reported by the Detroit News and also obtained by Axios, elicited outrage and accusations of bad-faith bargaining from the automakers.
  • The fallout is likely to further undermine trust at the bargaining table, making a deal even more elusive as the union prepares to expand its strike to more factories on Friday.

Details: In the messages, Furman says the rationale behind the union's so-called "Stand Up" strategy is to strike at select plants and keep the companies guessing.

  • "(I)f we can keep them wounded for months they don't know what to do. The beauty is we've laid it all out in the public and they're still helpless to stop it."
  • "And creating compression points of national attention for them to do the right thing is way different than just waiting for a month for the next offer. Plus, we're breaking pattern and they're bargaining against each other for the first time in 70 years."
  • Instead of bargaining with one company to achieve a pattern deal that can be applied to all three Detroit automakers, Furman says the UAW aims to turn the companies against each other in a bid to secure the best deal for union members.

Of note: Furman is a former reporter at Labor Notes, an advocacy nonprofit, who also worked as a national labor organizer for Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign. In the group chat, he also crowed:

  • "(Two) years ago I was writing labor notes articles about John Deere. Now we're striking all 3 of the Big 3 and gonna' win some historic gains. CNN is carrying our comms and picket line live. The White House calling concerned about what we might say. Members screaming 'I LOVE YOU' to our folksy gen x class struggle christian white dude from Indiana who quotes Malcolm X," an apparent reference to UAW President Fain.
  • Furman didn't respond to Axios' request for comment. While he would not confirm to the Detroit News that he wrote the messages, he called them "private messages" that "you shouldn't have."
  • At 1:57 p.m. Thursday, according to a screenshot obtained by the Detroit News, he wrote: "Someone leaked my remarks in here to the business press. I'm out."

What they're saying: GM said in a statement that it's "now clear that the UAW leadership has always intended to cause months-long disruption, regardless of the harm it causes to its members and their communities."

  • The statement added that the leaked information "calls into question who is actually in charge of UAW strategy and shows a callous disregard for the seriousness of what is at stake. UAW leadership needs to put the interests of its members and the country over their own ideological and personal agendas."

Ford's chief communications officer, Mark Truby, said in a statement: "It's disappointing, to say the least, given what is at stake for our employees, the companies and this region,"

  • "For our part, we will continue to work day and night, bargaining in good faith, to reach an agreement that rewards our workforce and allows Ford to invest in a vibrant and growing future."

A Stellantis spokesperson said: "These reported comments made by the UAW communications director are incredibly disturbing and strongly indicate that the UAW's approach to these talks is not in the best interest of the workforce. We are disappointed that it appears our employees are being used as pawns in an agenda that is not intended to meet their needs."

Where it stands: Fain, who ran as a reformer after a corruption scandal that landed two of his predecessors in prison, has been employing far more aggressive tactics in the current round of bargaining than the union has in the past.

  • Its unprecedented simultaneous strike at all three automakers currently involves about 13,000 UAW workers — around 10% of the union's 146,000 workers employed at GM, Ford and Stellantis — at factories that build small pickup trucks and SUVs in Missouri, Michigan and Ohio.
  • Fain is set to reveal new work stoppages Friday morning.

Go deeper: How the UAW strike could disrupt the economy

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