UAW, automakers continue working on COVID-19 response
UAW President Rory Gamble (left) shakes hands with Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford at the start of 2019 labor negotiations.
Ford Motor Co.

UAW, automakers continue working on COVID-19 response

Union had asked for two-week shutdown; Ford, GM, FCA make no official changes to U.S. production plans.


UPDATE 2 p.m.:

General Motors is shutting down operations Thursday evening through at least March 30.

Chairman and CEO Mary Barra said, "We have been taking extraordinary precautions around the world to keep our plant environments safe and recent developments in North America make it clear this is the right thing to do now."

UPDATE 1:20 p.m.:

Ford will suspend all North American production starting Thursday evening, running through March 30.

“We’re continuing to work closely with union leaders, especially the United Auto Workers, to find ways to help keep our workforce healthy and safe – even as we look at solutions for continuing to provide the vehicles customers really want and need,” said Kumar Galhotra, Ford’s president of North America. “In these unprecedented times, we’re exploring unique and creative solutions to support our workforce, customers, dealers, suppliers and communities.”

UPDATE 9 a.m.:

Late Tuesday, the UAW announced it has agreed to a series of shift changes with Ford, GM, and FCA. Details are dribbling out slowly, but this looks to be a work slowdown with some shift cancellations to reduce plant crowding and give maintenance crews more time to clean.

FCA officials say the rotating shifts allow "greater separation of employees and further enhancing our new sanitation protocols."

Cleveland, Ohio – The short-term future of U.S. auto production remains cloudy as the United Auto Workers (UAW) pushes for a two-week shutdown to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and automakers slash production and Europe but stay silent on such plans here.

Late Sunday, the UAW, Ford, General Motors (GM), and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) announced the formation of a task force to study the industry’s response to the novel coronavirus that has killed thousands in China and Italy and is spreading rapidly throughout the United States and Europe.

On Tuesday afternoon, UAW President Rory Gamble issued a letter to union members, saying labor leaders had requested a complete shutdown of all union-represented plants to slow the spread of the virus and give health and safety officials time to figure out next steps.

“UAW leadership, based on the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations on how to protect ourselves and our communities, requested a two-week shutdown of operations to safeguard our members, our families and our communities. Your UAW leadership feels very strongly, and argued very strongly, that this is the most responsible course of action,” Gamble said. “The companies, however, were not willing to implement this request. They asked for 48 hours to put together plans to safeguard workers in their facilities.”

That 48-hour period expired Tuesday afternoon, and Gamble said he’d update members after meeting with the task force which includes the top leadership from the three automakers. Late Tuesday, Gamble issued another letter but offered little direction on how long plants would stay open.

“We are facing the most significant health crisis in memory and I know that our families and members — and all working men and women — are worried, unsure of what tomorrow will bring and facing hardships and extremely difficult challenges and decisions,” Gamble said. “Our message is simple: You put our members first in this global crisis… We must all work together in this very difficult time. I will continue to provide updates as we know more.”

While the picture in the U.S. remains cloudy, European auto production has all-but ceased. Following FCA’s decision last week to shutter most of its plants, Volkswagen said Monday it would shut down in Europe, and Ford said Tuesday that it is temporarily halting output there.

Several analysts predict that full plant shutdowns will come to the U.S. soon. Several suppliers have ceased production, supplies from China and other Asian countries are flowing slowly to the U.S., and with Americans being told to avoid going out in public unless completely necessary, retail sales are likely to fall sharply in the short term.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk pledged Tuesday to keep production running at the electric automaker’s plant in Fremont, California, but that plant is in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region under almost complete lockdown. Officials are allowing the plant to remain open, but getting enough employees there to staff production will be difficult.

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and Today's eMobility and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 19 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.