UAW opposes early May restart to auto production

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble doesn't want auto plants to reopen early next month, despite efforts by the Detroit Three to get plants ready for a restart as early as May 4.

"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 Gamble in a statement Thursday, taking a stand as carmakers develop safety protocols they hope will convince apprehensive workers to return to factories.

GM has been preparing safety measures at the Warren Transmission plant where it's making face masks. Employees are questioned as to whether they've had COVID-19 symptoms. Their temperatures are checked. And they are issued masks and safety glasses. Those protocols will be in place when auto production restarts.

"We have not done enough testing to really understand the threat our members face. We want to make sure the scientific data is supportive and every possible health protocols and enhanced protections are in place before UAW members walk into the workplace."

The UAW remains in discussions with leaders of the Detroit automakers about how to protect their members from the virus as local union leaders push for protection of their members. Automakers, meanwhile, say they are fine-tuning precautions they've used elsewhere to use for when production does restart.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is the only Detroit carmaker to publicly set a target to begin restarting plants: May 4. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. haven't announced restart dates. But with plants that started closing the week of March 15 and billions of dollars being lost, automakers are desperate to get assembly lines moving again.

On Thursday, GM told some employees that plant leadership might seek volunteers next week "to support our restart planning," according to an alert sent to at least two plants that was obtained by The Detroit News. GM confirmed it was "notifying a small number of team members, primarily salaried and skilled trades employees, that we may need them to report to work soon."

Eric Welter, shop chairman for UAW Local 598 at GM's Flint truck plant, doesn't know what the answer is to keep his 5,000-plus members safe. A small number of workers are going into the plant next week to prepare for the eventual restart.

"My peers feel the same way. We are concerned about our decisions having a life or death impact," he said. "I don’t know that you can keep people safe. I think all you can do is reduce the exposure and the risk. It’s kind of an unnerving situation for everybody."

The UAW specifically wants to make sure that workers can be tested. Across the country, testing has been limited due to shortages of swabs and reagents.

In an interview with The News on Thursday, Gerald Johnson, GM's executive vice president of global manufacturing, said it would be "impractical" to test all of the company's auto workers — more than 50,000. GM plans to have some testing capabilities when production restarts; it will be offered to those who have COVID-19 symptoms or have come in contact with someone who has symptoms.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said this week she has been in discussions with CEOs of the Detroit Three, suppliers and the UAW: "I understand that they’ve got some issues to work through and at the appropriate time I am hopeful that we can analyze what the protocols are and start to slowly re-engage in a safe manner." Whitmer said at that press conference that her stay-at-home order through April 30 might have to be extended.

Gamble said Thursday the UAW supports that extension: "We strongly suggest to our companies in all sectors that an early May date is too soon and too risky to our members, their families and their communities."

Foreign automakers, who don't have to bargain with the UAW, have been more forceful in their restart plans for U.S. plants: Toyota and Hyundai want to start rolling May 4. Subaru plans to reopen May 11. Nissan is looking at mid-May.

The worst thing carmakers could do is have an "accordion issue” of closing again right after reopening, said Dave Andrea, principal and member of Plante Moran's automotive strategy team. “You don’t want to be a source of a secondary outbreak, and you have to have the confidence of your workforce that they want to come back in."

Michelle Heath, quality inspector, Project M, General Motors, examines each face mask made at the Warren transmission plant on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

Getting ready

GM has been preparing for the challenge at two facilities that remain open: the Warren Transmission plant where it's making face masks, and the Kokomo, Indiana, facility where it's making ventilators.

Employees at those facilities are questioned as to whether they've had COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to the virus. Their temperatures are checked. And they are issued masks and safety glasses. Those safety measures will be in place when auto production restarts.

"The reason we are confident is because we have over 40,000 people operating (with) these protocols already," Johnson said. "China was six weeks ahead of us. We have operations in China where we have executed these same protocols and they provided the foundation for our decision for the same protocols to be put in place here."

James Barner, water spider, Project M, General Motors, examines face masks made at the Warren transmission plant on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

Ford will use similar precautions it's been using at facilities where paid UAW volunteers are building ventilators and face shields. Workers must certify before starting their shifts that they are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, haven't traveled to hot spots for the virus, and haven't come into contact with anyone known to have the disease. They must go through a thermal scanner to check for fever.

In a recent interview with The News, Ford CEO Jim Hackett touted the potential use of thermal imaging. The technology displays a person's thermal reading through a shadow when they enter a building, and it's a protective measure used in China.

"That's going to change your sense if you're walking in there that there's somebody unknowingly coming in with a fever," he said. "And so there's a series of things that we are going to be rolling out to stage the recovery and build the confidence."

Workers already are required to wear company-provided face masks. If they are doing work that requires them to be closer than six feet to someone else, they must wear company-provided face shields.

Fiat Chrysler said that in Italy, it came to an agreement with the unions to provide each worker surgical masks and a new pair of gloves for each working day, and a new pair of safety glasses each month. Anyone entering facilities has their body temperature checked with a thermal camera or remote thermometers.

Chasan Karadsheh, quality inspector, Project M, General Motors, stretches and examines the finished face masks made at the Warren transmission plant on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

What workers want

American Axle employee Trent DeSenglau has a list of safety protocols he wants to be implemented before the auto supplier restarts its plants. No. 1 is making sure workers can be tested.

"I have a whole bunch of people I have to look out for, so I have thought long and hard about this," said the UAW Local 155 plant chairman at American Axle's Fraser facility. "We got to have a clean point to enter our plant so we know that everybody who's in there or entering in there at some point has tested negative.

"Unless they can be absolutely sure that they are going to be safe, they don't want to put their lives at risk," DeSenglau said of his co-workers. "It's car parts. Is it really worth your life?"

American Axle said its "operation restart dates will be based upon customer schedules and local government mandates."

James Griffin, a seven-year Fiat Chrysler employee who is a team leader at the Sterling Heights truck plant, was last at work March 14. Two days later, he was so sick he couldn't get out of bed. After his symptoms cleared, he learned he had tested positive for COVID-19. The 37-year-old father of four from Redford Township had no choice but to watch his wife, Lauren, give birth to their fourth child, a son, on FaceTime.

He has no idea how he contracted the disease, and there's no way of knowing if he caught it while working at the plant or while out running errands. 

Griffin said when work does restart, "they should be going around and not just wiping things down but spraying disinfectant throughout the whole plant. That should be the first measure. They should have masks for everyone. We should have different pairs of gloves. To be honest, we all need a system where we're not in close proximity, and being in a plant you are going to be in close proximity to each other. So many jobs ... they tend to overlap."

Johnny Pruitte, an electrician at GM's Arlington Assembly in Texas, doesn't see how it's possible to completely expel the coronavirus from that massive SUV manufacturing plant with nearly 5,000 employees. He believes no amount of cleaning or safety measures could completely prevent the virus from getting into plants and spreading.

"I don’t know that there is anything that can make you feel safe," he said. "So we might as well pull our bootstraps up, do the best job we can hygiene-wise and go on back to work, get the economy rolling."


Staff Writers Angelique Chengelis and Jordyn Grzelewski contributed.