Automakers to partially shut down plants amid coronavirus fears

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

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 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."

UAW president Rory Gamble

Read more: Warren GM, Dearborn Ford employees test positive for coronavirus

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-Dearborn, 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.

The companies did not immediately share details about implementation of the new policies, though information is expected over the next 24 hours. The companies said they already have increased distances where possible between workers, staggered breaks, provided disinfectants, adjusted production schedules to allow for cleaning and screened visitors.

Fiat Chrysler said in a statement that despite the economic turmoil resulting from the virus, it has a "strong North American order book from both fleet and dealer partners." It added that CEO MIke Manley on Tuesday visited assembly and stamping plants in southeast Michigan.

"I wanted to see for myself how we are implementing our new cleaning and workplace protocols, and be assured that we are putting their welfare first as we continue to support the effort to arrest the spread of this virus," he said in a statement.

Earlier Tuesday, employees were notified that one salaried worker each at Ford's Dearborn product development and GM's Warren Technical Center campuses also were diagnosed. 

A Fiat Chrysler employee at Sterling Heights tested positive for the virus, the automaker confirmed Tuesday night. The individual is receiving medical care, and the company is contacting colleagues who might have had contact with the person. The worker is believed to be hourly, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said. The worker had not been in the plant for a week.

Last week, a salaried Fiat Chrysler employee at the Kokomo Transmission Plant in Indiana tested positive for COVID-19. Others with whom he came into direct contact also were put into self-quarantine.

Seventeen workers in Fiat Chrysler's Warren Truck Plant paint shop stopped working Monday morning over virus concerns. Production was able to continue, FCA spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said, and the operations in the paint shop resumed early that afternoon.

And UAW Local 600 in Dearborn filed a grievance against Ford, requesting a two-week shutdown, more hand-sanitizing stations and frequent cleaning of shared spaces like the cafeteria and restrooms. Other local leaders have made similar requests.

The automaker typically shuts down plants to retool for the next model year in July, though March may be too early for that, said Art Schwartz, president of Labor and Economics Associates in Ann Arbor and a former GM labor negotiator.

Most plants have some daily downtime that might be used for additional cleaning. Volkswagen AG on Monday shut down its Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant for a day so workers could arrange child care after schools closed and to do extra sanitization. Other foreign automakers manufacturing in the United States said they do not know of any positive cases among their workforce.

“It’s a tough situation,” Schwartz said. “There is no blueprint. I hope for this one, both sides will sit down and talk and come up with an innovative solution that no one has thought of yet.” 

The union potentially could strike, citing health and safety reasons, though that typically is seen as a last-resort measure. Labor negotiations with the automakers wrapped up late last year after a 40-day national strike at GM during which the company lost $3.6 billion and depleted some of its inventory.

While most plants continue to run in the United States, it's a different story in Europe. Ford now says it's stopping production at plants in Germany and Romania starting Thursday along with the already-closed Valencia Engine in Spain, which had three positive cases of the virus. The shutdown is for a "number of weeks." Fiat Chrysler on Monday had said it was shutting down eight plants in Italy, Poland and Serbia because of the virus.

The companies both referenced falling demand for new vehicles as reasons for the closures. European governments have shut down most businesses to prevent further spreading of the virus. Supply disruptions are increasing, Ford added, and sales of operations at dealers in some countries have had to close, as well. Some employees have struggled to get to work because of the pandemic, Reid said.

Fiat Chrysler's target is to return to production in its European plants on March 27. Ford says it's taking into consideration the spread of the coronavirus, government restrictions, availability of vehicle components and the return of customers to dealerships.

Ford has said showroom traffic is down in some areas of the United States. Experts predict similar actions could be taken here as in Europe as the virus progresses.

"The issue in Europe is that their buyers are locked down even tighter than America," said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at Pennsylvania-based AutoForecast Solutions.

"Italy is completely shut down. They don’t have any demand at the moment. There’s no reason to load up dealerships that aren’t selling now and won't be selling in a week or two. It’s a completely different story in North America. There is still demand for new vehicles here."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

Staff Writer Kalea Hall contributed.